Talk of the Town - 'Hot' elections July 08 2000

July primaries guarantee low turnout, unfit candidates

The lethargic days of summer on upon us. Our minds are on vacation, the beach, barbecues and leisure. Politics and elections are about the farthest thing from our everyday thoughts. Yet in less than two weeks, Georgia voters will be asked to make important decisions that will impact our lives on a daily basis. Has anyone paying attention?

For two decades, I have pontificated and fulminated about the problems of holding a primary election in July. Obviously, such concerns have long been downplayed or ignored by incumbents and political operatives who not only like having elections where only a handful of voters turn out, but knowingly take advantage of small turnouts to keep tight reins of their respective political clubs.

Let's face it, it's hard to rouse a lot of voter interest with the kids out of school, holiday trips to plan or recover from, and friends and relatives visiting us from all over. We're too busy following the fortunes of John Rocker, Tiger Woods and the "Survivor" castaways to focus on the candidates and their positions. We really don't even want to take time to think about the likes of Bob Barr.

The real political debate will take place in the fall. It always has and always will.

That's why it's ridiculous to opine, for example, that Al Gore will lose in the fall because he trails George W. Bush in the polls today. For that matter, those who say Fulton D.A. Paul Howard is washed up because of his handling of the Ray Lewis trial also are out to lunch. We are simply not focused in 90-degree heat and humidity.

In DeKalb County and a number other growing suburban counties, voters will be asked July 18 to make important decisions on key county commissioners — when probably 25 percent of the population is out of town. Now I ask you, is this any way to run an election?

"OK," you might say, "if you don't vote, you don't count." Baloney! We should hold elections when we can maximize voter turnout. I propose that we create a new state holiday — Election Day — and hold it in September.

No doubt the dotcom generation will wake us up to new means of citizen participation; Georgia's archaic, antiquated methods are bound to change. In the not-too-distant future we'll be voting on the Net, by mail and probably over a two-three week election period. Unfortunately, it will take a strong bipartisan political will that currently doesn't seem to exist. The same people who get elected in July really don't want to alter the process so that more people participate in September.

So, for now, we're stuck with low voter turnout, electoral apathy and elections decided by a minuscule number of voters. Not only do such practices play into the hands of candidates who may not be the best-qualified. We do a grievous disservice to our cherished democracy itself.

The arduous task of changing voting laws is not sexy, exhilarating or fun. It will take hard work, sweat and strong citizen lobbying. But it must be done. The time to end July primaries is long overdue. If groups like the League of Women Voters, NAACP, labor and other civic and political groups get behind a strong new set of primary election laws, Georgia — now one of the weakest voter participation states in the country — could take the lead.

Yes, despite these steamy days it's time for us to act. If we get off our butts now, come 2002 — instead of sweating at the fire station or school polling places in July — we will be able to vote electronically or by mail, in a cooler, September frame of mind.

Do I hear a second?

HOUCKLINE: Call, 404-614-1886; e-mail, thouck@mindspring.com

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