COMMENTARY — On May 20, 2014, Georgia held its earliest primary vote in the state’s recent history. By all accounts, it will be the longest timespan between the primary date and the runoff, as well as the election.
There was some grumbling, to be sure. Some carped about how short a time the election was after the legislative session concluded. Others have complained, in advance, about how long the runoff is going to be, and whether it will give an advantage to “the other party.”
Yet we forget why we changed the calendar in the first place.
As I write this, on Memorial Day, I read all the loud calls to honor and respect our men and women in uniform, and the service they provide to our country. Yet most don’t even realize that we changed our election date for them.
You see, a few years ago, a local marine veteran contacted me. He had heard about military votes not being contacted. I was a bit skeptical at first, but found he was generally on target. In most elections, ballots that arrive late aren’t counted, unless it could change the course of the election. And those late ballots tend to come from overseas.
I set my students to research the issue. A law was passed during the 2009-2010 session that ordered states to get those ballots out to the military well in advance. But we found a problem. While states generally complied with the fall election, many Southern states had primaries and runoffs that violated the time frame for military voting. It was the same story in 2011.
Let’s take the case of South Carolina, one of the worst offenders. They had a primary and runoff two weeks later. Military voters couldn’t get their runoff choices back in time, much less figure out who was even remaining on the ballot. This happened in their 2010 primary, and the special congressional election that Mark Sanford won in 2013. What a shame for the Palmetto State, where so many have served this country.
Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp seemed more aware of the problem. A call to his office led us to discover that a blank ballot was included in the primary, in case of a runoff. That was a good idea, until you realize that the soldier, sailor or pilot might vote for someone who didn’t make the primary. A vote for Eric Johnson or John Oxendine in case of a runoff in 2010 would have been a wasted ballot.
I publicized our class results, in the LaGrange Daily News, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Southern Political Report, and Yahoo News, several times. It was a bit discouraging at first when I got some page hits, but no results. No one else was writing about it. Then the Justice Department announced it was suing several states for the very same charges we were making.
Some states vowed to fight the enforcement of the law, and refused to change their election dates. But some, like Texas and Georgia, changed their election laws. Sure it led to a few inconveniences, I’m sure. But when we remember those who served, who put up with a ton of “inconveniences” on a daily basis, I’m sure you’ll understand why the election law was changed.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.