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Committee votes to delay changes to Georgia special elections

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and general counsel Ryan Germany testify before the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The committee approved an amended version of House Bill 757 that would start partisan primaries in special elections next year. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and general counsel Ryan Germany testify before the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The committee approved an amended version of House Bill 757 that would start partisan primaries in special elections next year. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

A House committee voted Tuesday to delay creating partisan primaries for Georgia special elections until next year, avoiding a head-to-head Republican fight between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

The House Governmental Affairs Committee approved the revised bill on a 9-6 vote, moving it toward a vote in the full House. A previous version of the bill had stalled after Gov. Brian Kemp threatened to veto a partisan primary this year for Loeffler's U.S. Senate seat.

Under the proposal, a special election for Loeffler’s post would go forward as planned in November, with candidates from all political parties competing on the same ballot. The top two candidates would advance to a runoff if none wins a majority.

A special election is required to fill the final two years of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term after he retired in December.

The idea for a partisan primary in this year's election had made House Bill 757 a battle between supporters of Loeffler, whom Kemp appointed to replace Isakson, and Collins, a prominent defender of President Donald Trump during impeachment proceedings.

Now that partisan primaries in special elections wouldn't begin until 2021, their faceoff won't occur until November. Three Democrats are also in the race: educator Matt Lieberman, former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver and the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Barry Fleming, said partisan primaries would help set the field of candidates so that there's just ultimately one Republican and one Democrat competing.

“You narrow the election down to a few candidates to choose from,” said Fleming, a Republican from Harlem. “When we have special elections, we don’t narrow that field.”

Democrats, who had been eager for a Republican primary conflict this year, voted against the bill now that it wouldn’t take effect until after the U.S. Senate special election is over.

"If the policy change is good beginning in January 2021, it should be good now," said Minority Leader Bob Trammell, a Democrat from Luthersville. "A primary process allows the voters an opportunity to examine the candidates very carefully. Then we emerge with a clear picture in the November general election."

The legislation calls for partisan primaries in special elections to occur at the same time as regularly scheduled primaries, usually in May. Multicandidate races would still occur if an office becomes vacant after the period when candidates sign up to run in March.

The bill also seeks partisan primaries for special elections for state House and state Senate seats that become vacant after the General Assembly concludes its annual legislative session. Then, the winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries would meet in a follow-up election. Vacancies that occur during legislative sessions would still be elected through special elections as they’re currently held.

Some legislators said they’re worried that adding new elections in addition to special elections will come with a hefty expense for taxpayers.

“Now we have another election on top of that , and it would be a great concern and cost to counties, especially our rural ones,” said Todd Edwards of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which advocates for county governments.

Part of the bill would take effect this year.

The measure would make clear that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has the authority to set the candidate qualifying period for the special election for the U.S. Senate. Raffensperger has said he wants to hold candidate qualifying during the first week in March, the same time candidates in other races file their intention to run.

While Georgia secretaries of state have for decades determined when candidates can sign up to run for office, this bill was designed to avoid potential lawsuits about Raffensperger’s authority to do so.