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Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 12:00pm

Push For More Nonpartisan Races

Republican lawmakers are pushing a series of bills to make more local elections nonpartisan. Backers told the Senate ethics committee Monday that it would save money by nixing primaries in those races. But others say the move reflects Georgia shifting demographics.

The bills take aim at offices such as coroner, solicitor general and sheriff. They would give counties the option of making such races nonpartisan.

Sen. Buddy Carter of Pooler drafted the bills. He says people who run for sheriff, for instance, just want to keep Georgians safe. He says political affiliation doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Tom Crawford edits the online political digest, The Georgia Report. He says the push for nonpartisan elections comes in cycles.

“Over the years, as I have seen one area of Georgia turn more Democratic or another area of the state turn more Republican, I’ve seen a lot of these similar arguments being made for nonpartisan elections," Crawford said in an interview. "Even without the partisan element, you can make a pretty good argument that some elections should be nonpartisan, like for a school board.”

Crawford says the new push comes as some traditionally GOP counties are on the verge of turning Democratic.

Watchdog groups say nonpartisan races fall during primaries when fewer people vote. They worry that could reduce voter participation in these races.

Supporters say many qualified candidates don't want to run in partisan races for offices such as district attorney. They also say many voters stick to party affiliation in the voting booth even when casting ballots for school board or solicitor general. And they say that means they overlook good, solid candidates.

Carlotta Harrell is a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent from Henry County. A lifelong Democrat, Harrell appeared before the Senate ethics committee Monday to support the bill. She said many public offices, including sheriff, have nothing to do with party politics.

“I live in a Republican county. I just came out of an election where I ran as a Democrat in a Republican county," she told the committee during her testimony. "I got 48 percent of the vote in a Republican county. Had this been a nonpartisan race, maybe I would have won.”

Harrell ran for Henry County Commission Chair. She said she voted for a Republican for sheriff and will do so again because she knows he does a good job.

Many municipal elections, including mayoral and school board, are already nonpartisan.

The committee took no action on the bills.