By JoEllen Smith
Imagine competing in a doubles tennis match but the rules have changed. The winner is no longer chosen by points earned, but by a vote of only one participant. Sound preposterous? Well this is how our elected officials are often chosen. Approximately 25% of registered voters choose nearly all of our local elected officials.
You may doubt me because you’ve waited in line to vote in November. Well, the majority of candidates are actually chosen during the summer, when the Republican and Democratic parties hold their primary elections. These primaries are open to all voters and have multiple candidates on the ballot. Most districts in Georgia are heavily represented by only one political party or the other so, quite often, the opposition party doesn’t even have candidates running. The result is that many primary winners will face no opposition in November.
Smaller “down ticket” races are the most important ones affecting your life. Do you know who your state representative, state senator, school board member and county commissioner are? Are they being challenged this summer? To make matters worse, many people don’t register to vote at all, due to their fear of being called for jury duty. That’s an unfounded fear. By law, the jury pool must be pulled from five different lists. One of those lists is of drivers’ licenses.
When I ran for office, many people said, “I would really like to vote for you but I’m a registered Democrat (or independent).” Well, you’re actually not. There is no party registration in Georgia. When you register to vote, you are not asked to choose a political party. This allows everyone to walk into their local precincts on primary day and chose, on the spot, which political party’s ballot to request. And everyone can change party ballots year to year if they so desire. You can also vote early or by mail with no reason needed. Visit www.sos.ga.gov or your county board of elections website for detailed information.
According to the Cobb County Board of Elections, there was a 31.4% turnout in the 2012 primaries and, in the 2010 primaries, only 22.5%. This self-selected minority chooses your way of life for you.
Now to the good news: the primaries used to be in the deadest part of the summer while many were on vacation. Fortunately, that has now changed. Beginning this year, primaries move to May 20. I hope those of you with school-aged children will make the effort to vote for education-friendly candidates this May. Many of our current elected officials don’t pay attention to education issues. I’m often told, “Your friends don’t vote in primaries JoEllen, so I don’t listen.”
Starting this month, many PTAs are educating the public about the importance of primary voting on May 20th. If you are on a PTA which hasn’t started this push, please consider it. Education funding is at a tipping point and we must have a voice in all local races. Someone recently told me of his strong dislike for his school board member, “But that was the only name on the ballot in November so I had no choice.”
You do have a choice, but it must be exercised in the summer.
JoEllen Smith is an education activist and small business owner in Cobb County.