Georgia officials set presidential primary date for March 24

Georgia election officials set next year's presidential primary for March 24, shortly after county officials said the uncertainty of the timing could scramble their preparations to hold the vote.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced the date on Wednesday, reversing a position he staked earlier this week to hold off on deciding the timing of the 2020 primary until the government completes its purchase of new voting equipment.

Georgia was among the last states without a spot on the primary calendar and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this week that the delay was making it difficult for county elections officials to nail down polling places.

It’s not immediately clear why the timeline changed, and Raffensperger’s office did not comment on the shift. County elections officials were notified Wednesday by a bulletin that also said early voting for the contest would start March 2.

The March 24 date means that the presidential primary won't take place until after many other states have already weighed in, potentially diminishing Georgia's relevance in deciding each party's candidate.

But leading Democrats welcomed the new date, anticipating that Georgia could play a more prominent role in the primary if it's separated from the group of large states holding their primary vote on Super Tuesday.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said she’s pleased Raffensperger “finally did his job” and selected a date, ending months of uneasy limbo that unnerved local elections supervisors.

“This timing uniquely places Georgia as the decision maker for the Democratic presidential primary,” she said, “and we expect to continue seeing candidates engage Georgia Democrats.”

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The election will also mark an important test for the new $150 million system of touchscreen-and-printer voting technology that Georgia is set to purchase to replace the state's 17-year-old electronic voting system.

At least four election companies have submitted confidential bids for the contract, which may not be finalized until July. And pending federal court cases challenging the state’s elections process could also delay or complicate the roll-out.

'Maximize visibility’

The March date comes as a relief to politicians who were worried the vote could be pushed back as far as May, when the Democratic race for president could be all but decided.

Still, even the late March timing is a departure from recent policy.

The Georgia primary was held on Super Tuesday — the first Tuesday in March — in each of the past two presidential election years. Then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp orchestrated an “SEC primary” on that date with other Southern states in 2016.

On Super Tuesday in 2020, California and Texas have planned their presidential primaries on the same March 3 day as many states in the South, sapping the region's importance as a one-day voting bloc.

By going it alone, Georgia’s move may pay off.

It's the only state that has so far scheduled a primary on that date, said Allan Keiter, who runs the election-tracking website. And the trove of Georgia delegates awarded in the vote could be pivotal if the race is still competitive.

“The state will have the date to itself and it will maximize visibility in the media and among the candidates still in the race,” said Keiter. “There could be lots of visits that week, and voter turnout would also be higher.”

Voters line up to cast ballots at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta for Georgia’s presidential primary in 2016. The state’s primary for 2020 will not be scheduled until new voting machines are put in place. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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No more limbo

What’s unknown is why state elections officials abruptly reversed their position.

A Raffensperger deputy, Jordan Fuchs, told the AJC in a story published Monday that the office would not set a date until a vendor for new voting machines was chosen and "a specific implementation plan" is in place.

Pressed for comment Wednesday on why the Republican seemingly changed his mind, Raffensperger’s office only acknowledged receiving the question.

Antsy elections officials were happy to have a date.

Nancy Boren, the chief elections official in Muscogee County, said she was already expecting a primary sometime in the first quarter of next year but said she needed an exact date to finish her planning.

“Having the date is great – we can start setting the dates for early voting and absentee ballot mailings,” said Boren. “We can now complete all those things we normally do in preparation for an election.”

Douglas County Elections Director Milton Kidd was one of a handful of local officials to make public his concerns before Raffensperger set the date, saying the uncertainty already caused complications with scheduling poll workers, printing schedules to mail to voters and booking facilities for the primary.

Kidd said Wednesday that the timing means the end of the uneasy limbo for him and the county’s 300 poll workers, who can now start preparing for the March 24 date.

“It needed to be set,” he said. “I have to be able to actually plan an election for the citizens of Douglas County. We can’t have that uncertainty.”