**Update March 08, 2018: Senate Bill 363 also restricts voting time in Atlanta to 7pm, though it does not call for primaries before special elections. SB-363 passed the Senate and is advancing in the House. SB-309 is stalled because Mr. McKoon did not appear for a hearing on the bill.
The Georgia Legislature re-convened on January 8th for the second segment of the 2017-2018 Legislative Session with Republican leaders continuing to show little interest in taking up some of the more controversial bills. One such controversial bill seeks to reform special elections and reduce voting time in Atlanta.
Current Georgia law requires polls to be open from 7am to 7pm on election days, but in cities with populations of 300,000 or more the polls are required to stay open until 8pm. SB-309, introduced by Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), strikes the 8pm language to create a uniform 7pm closing time for polls across the state.
Is This Designed to Suppress the Vote in Atlanta?
It’s not entirely clear what the rationale is for the proposed change, but one explanation is that it’s an attempt to reduce turnout among Democratic voters. The only city with a population of 300,000 or more is Atlanta and its residents vote overwhelmingly for Democrats; meanwhile, Mr. McKoon is considered to be one of the more conservative members in the Georgia Legislature. The bill comes at an important time since polls indicate the potential for a Democratic wave this November when Georgians will vote for a new governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state. The secretary of state administers elections in Georgia and Mr. McKoon happens to be running for that office.
In addition to reducing time to vote in Atlanta, SB-309 amends Georgia law to require primaries for special elections. In a normal election, primaries are held to determine which candidate will represent each party in the election. This guarantees that each party will only have one candidate on the election ballot. However, primaries are not held for special elections, so all candidates participate in one election. This means that multiple Democrats and multiple Republicans could be on the special election ballot. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote then the top two candidates move on to a runoff election. This system is sometimes referred to as a “runoff election” or “jungle primary.”
Mr. McKoon was apparently motivated to add primaries to special elections when a Democrat won the special election in Georgia’s conservative Senate District 6 last November. Republicans split their vote among 5 candidates, which allowed the two Democratic candidates to receive the most votes and move into a runoff.
It’s Unfair that the Party with the Most Votes Doesn’t Win. That Sounds Familiar.
His feeling, and one that’s likely shared by many others, is that it’s unfair that a Democrat won since more total votes were cast for the Republican candidates than for the Democratic candidates. This is, of course, similar to the argument many made after the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections when the Democratic candidates received more votes, but lost the elections. Republicans, unsurprisingly, have little incentive to support scrapping the electoral college and electing the president by popular vote.
While Mr. McKoon could simply be interested in creating a fairer election system, Democrat Steve Henson (D-Tucker) thinks helping Republicans is the real motivation. In an interview with the AJC he claims that Mr. McKoon didn’t raise any objections when the Republican-controlled legislature redrew the lines for Senate District 6 in 2012 to increase the number of conservative voters. Such gerrymandering across the state has resulted in Democratic-leaning voters being well-underrepresented in the Georgia Legislature: Democrats control 34 percent of the seats in the Georgia Senate, yet in the last two presidential elections the Democratic candidate received 45 percent of the vote.
It should be noted that Democrats engaged in the same redrawing of districts to benefit themselves when they were in power in the early 2000’s, so it’s not like they have any moral superiority in this argument. It should also be pointed out that Mr. McKoon co-sponsored Senate Resolution 6, a bi-partisan attempt at reducing gerrymandering by putting citizens in charge of redistricting.
So perhaps the bill isn’t aimed at helping Republicans by reducing Democratic turnout, but at reducing confusion about when polls close. In 2016, local officials caused some confusion when they mistakenly told Atlanta voters that polls closed at 7pm when they actually closed at 8pm. In 2017, the Georgia Secretary of State’s website listed the closing time as 7pm statewide with a spokeswoman blaming a coding issue as to why Atlanta’s 8pm closing time wasn’t mentioned.
Why Not Make 8pm the Uniform Closing Time?
It’s unclear if Mr. McKoon’s bill is designed to suppress the vote or to reduce voter confusion and create fairer elections (or to do all three). It comes at a time, though, when politicians across the country are participating in voter suppression under the guise of promoting accuracy in elections. Why not make 8pm the uniform cutoff time and give everyone in Georgia more time to vote? Why not invest heavily in educating the public on registering to vote, where to vote, and when to vote? Why not change state law from a winner-take-all system to a proportional representation system?
While the motivation behind the bill is unclear, we do know that this proposal can’t be the best way to reduce voter confusion, promote fairer elections, and more accurately represent the will of the people.
Please visit our 2017-2018 Legislative Session page for tracking and analysis of many other bills.