Lawmakers eyeing earlier presidential primaries

ATLANTA - House Republicans proposed two major changes to state election law Tuesday designed to give Georgians more say in nominating presidential candidates and reduce the number of runoff elections.

GOP leaders introduced a bill that would move up next year's Georgia presidential primaries to Feb. 5. The voting is currently set for March 4.

The legislation also would set the minimum victory margin for candidates in primary and general elections at 45 percent plus one. Only municipal elections would be exempt from the requirement.

Under current law, candidates must win 50 percent of the vote plus one to avoid a runoff.

In seeking an earlier date for the presidential primaries, Georgia would join a host of states pushing to give their voters a choice of Democratic and Republican nominees while the races are still undecided.

At least 10 states already are scheduled to hold their presidential primaries on Feb. 5, and another five - including California, New York and Texas - are considering moving their elections forward to that date, said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, one of the bill's sponsors.

"It appears we will have a national primary,'' he said. "We do not want Georgia left out of the process.''

Both traditionally and by party rules, New Hampshire and Iowa have been the first states to declare their presidential preferences in a process that stretched from early February into June.

But there has been a race to the front of the calendar during the last several elections, as states have vied against each other to hold their primaries and causes as close to the start of the schedule as possible.

As South Carolina has moved to the forefront as the first Southern primary, Georgia has seen less activity from the campaigns.

Keen said holding the Georgia primaries earlier is the only way to ensure that the candidates pay attention to the state.

"We want the presidential candidates to come to Georgia, so the citizens of Georgia can participate in the process,'' he said.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said Democrats probably will support moving up the presidential primary when the bill hits the Governmental Affairs Committee.

But Porter was less certain whether his party colleagues would go along with reducing the margin of victory required for candidates to avoid a runoff.

Georgia election law has gone back and forth on that issue since 1992, when Republican Paul Coverdell defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler in a runoff, even though Fowler had outpolled Coverdell in the general election, 49.2 percent to 47.7 percent.

Democrats then in control of the General Assembly reacted by changing the law to allow candidates in a general election to avoid a runoff if they captured 45 percent of the vote plus one.

With that law in effect, Democrat Max Cleland won an open U.S. Senate seat in 1996 with only 48.9 percent of the vote.

Republicans changed the law again after they took over the legislature in 2004, putting the required margin of victory back at 50 percent plus one.

That ended up helping the GOP last year, when Republican Chuck Eaton ousted Democrat David Burgess from the Public Service Commission in a runoff after Burgess had received more votes in the general election.

But turnout was dismal because that down-ballot race was the only statewide contest on the runoff ballot.

To serve the relative smattering of voters, county elections officials had to open their precincts, provide staff and rent voting machines.

Keen said that experience provides a good argument for rolling back the minimum margin of victory to 45 percent plus one.

"We've heard from our local election boards,'' he said. "We believe this will accommodate our local governments and reduce costs to the taxpayers.''