Georgia primary to be earliest in state history

A U.S. district judge has agreed to the earliest Georgia federal election calendar in memory beginning next year, with the state’s primary now shifting from July to May 20.

The “game-changer” move came at the request of Georgia officials, who had been chastised just last month by Judge Steve C. Jones for not giving military residents and other Georgians living overseas enough time to return absentee ballots by Election Day.

Jones originally ordered a federal schedule that would have moved up the state’s primary to June. Now, with the even earlier change to May, Georgia voters will be casting their ballots before Memorial Day, with officials expecting higher turnouts.

Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday touted the change as a way to make voting “as convenient as possible for Georgia families,” he said in a statement. “With kids still in school on May 20, more will be able to vote.”

Deal and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp also wanted to avoid having to hold early voting on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, which would have happened had they stuck to Jones’ original order.

The move will likely have a notable political impact.

Campaigns, already in full swing, could ratchet up TV ads earlier than ever. Candidates already holding political office could be tempted to step down to focus on fundraising.

The change had an immediate impact in the state General Assembly, after Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, announced Monday that she would resign her seat in order to concentrate on a bid to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens, in Congress.

“May 20 is definitely a game-changer in a congressional race. … Early voting will begin in April, essentially,” Sheldon said during an interview on WGAU, an Athens radio station.

But the political race most immediately affected by the decision is likely Georgia’s closely watched U.S. Senate race, which includes five high-profile candidates among seven Republicans challengers who are likely to split a primary vote and face an extended runoff race.

The judge’s order came amid signs of growing support from leading lawmakers, who are all but assured to make a decision during next year’s legislative session, beginning in January, to alter the state’s regular election cycle to match the new federal schedule.

If they did nothing, voters would have to double their trips to the polls and unhappy local elections officials would pay millions of dollars in order to hold more elections — a situation most legislators find untenable.

Still, they will be affected by the federal schedule even if they do nothing. Qualifying for federal candidates will be held the week of March 3, when the state Legislature is usually in session. Since qualifying occurs in both the state House and Senate chambers, lawmakers already face a week off and an extended session to accommodate the new schedule.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, however, both said the shift to May could bring a more robust turnout, and the governor’s office said in a statement Monday that “Governor Deal doesn’t want two sets of elections and he doesn’t want the early voting Saturday to land on Memorial Day weekend.”

There’s little data to project how voter turnout could change with the earlier start, but some analysts said the hopes among some establishment Republicans that it could prevent the contest for an open U.S. Senate seat from leaning too far to the right are overblown.

“In my opinion, the significance of the change in primary dates has been greatly exaggerated,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist and expert on voting policy. “It’s not going to alter the basic makeup of either party’s primary electorate.”

Abramowitz said small changes in turnout won’t alter the demographic or ideological makeup of the primary electorate. Black voters should still make up the majority of the Democratic voter base, which he projected would still lean slightly to the left. And the GOP electorate will be overwhelmingly white and lean far to the right.

The federal schedule became a problem for Georgia last year after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit taking issue with the state’s practice of holding runoffs three weeks after an election.

It based its complaint on the country’s Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986, which established a 45-day window for overseas voters to return their ballots.

The Justice Department objected to how that mandate clashed with the state’s 21-day runoff schedule. Jones in his order agreed and ordered an extended voting schedule.

Some tea party members weren’t too concerned by the change. Jack Staver, a tea party activist from Woodstock, called the move to a May primary a “golden opportunity” for his allies to begin gearing up for the earlier election.

“The voters are the voters. They’re going to be there. And now that we know what the game plan is, we know what target dates we have to hit,” said Staver, a consultant. “It gives us every reason in the world to push harder. We’ll have plenty of time to mobilize our forces.”

Dates moved up

A federal judge agreed to move up key dates in Georgia’s federal elections calendar to give residents and military personnel overseas enough time to return absentee ballots by Election Day. State elections were unaltered. The new dates are:

March 3-7, 2014: Qualifying period for federal candidates

April 5, 2014: Deadline to transmit overseas ballots for federal primary

May 20, 2014: Federal primary election

June 7, 2014: Deadline to transmit overseas ballots for federal primary runoff (if needed)

July 22, 2014: Federal primary runoff election

Sept. 20, 2014: Deadline to transmit overseas ballots for the federal general election

Nov. 4, 2014: Federal general election

Nov. 22, 2014: Deadline to transmit overseas ballots for federal general runoff election (if needed)

Jan. 6, 2015: Federal general runoff election