Metro Atlanta voters are being asked to the polls more and more

Dec 01, 2017
Voters at Henry W. Grady High School vote in the November election. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO)

If it seems like you’ve heard more political advertisements, or spent more time in the voting booth this year, there’s a good reason: The number of elections in metro Atlanta is up.

2017 was supposed to be an off year, with city elections in November and runoffs — when needed — on Tuesday. Instead, voters in many metro Atlanta counties were first asked to go to the polls in March. Then there were elections in April, in May and in June.

The influx of special elections can be costly for counties, can wear out elections staff and can burn out voters.

“If you have too many elections, people lose track,” said Richard Barron, Fulton’s director of registration and elections. “When you have so many elections and there’s little coverage, it’s hard to make educated choices.”

VIDEO: Previous coverage on early voting

Turnout to the polls will be key, and election officials are trying to make it convenient for voters by having multiple polling locations.

Turnout is always higher for presidential elections than for others. In the 2016 presidential election, Fulton County turnout was nearly 75 percent. It fell this year, even for a race with a lot of attention — turnout in the 6th congressional district race was 41 percent in April and 57 percent in the June runoff.

But in November, the number of voters casting ballots for mayor and city council was much lower — 24 percent in Roswell and 14 percent in Johns Creek.

“I just think we have too many” elections, Barron said.

From 2008 to 2012, Fulton County ran an average of three elections a year, he said, including runoffs. Since 2013, it’s been an average of seven elections annually.

With so many elections, there’s a risk of voter burnout, Barron said. Those people who don’t follow the news closely may not even know an election is being held, and those who do may not always know what they’re voting for, he said. As there are more and more elections, it gets even harder.

But those voters who do pay attention relish the opportunity to get more involved.

There have been a lot of opportunities in Roswell, where residents could vote in the 6th congressional district race and a runoff earlier this year, and where voters are now choosing a mayor in a runoff election. Jere Wood, the incumbent, isn’t on the ballot for the first time in 20 years.

Stacy Perlman, who lives in Roswell, said she doesn’t remember having ever voted in a runoff before this year. But she voted early ahead of this runoff, and said she’s been paying more attention to politics.

“I’ve been voting a lot,” Perlman said.

With an expansion of early voting, the number of election days is up. In Fulton County, there were 85 active voting days this year — it amounts to 23 percent of the year when a voter could be casting a ballot. The hours are longer, too.

The increase can be costly for counties. In Fulton County, the year’s six election dates are expected to cost nearly $2 million.

Janine Eveler, the Cobb County elections director, said special elections aren’t budgeted for, and Cobb has had “quite a few.”

“You never know when things are going to come up. Sometimes, it’s all at once,” she said. “Sometimes, we get a rash of them.”

Eveler said there can be a “domino effect” when one vacancy occurs that leads to others. Take, for example, the 6th congressional district race.

It was Tom Price’s ascension to the role of Health and Human Services secretary that created the opening. Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray was one candidate who resigned from his post to run, requiring a new election to replace him. State senator Judson Hill was another. That senate race, district 32, also went to a runoff.

In DeKalb County, elections director Erica Hamilton said she has also had an increase in elections this year. But Lynn Ledford, the Gwinnett elections supervisor, said it’s the first year since 2009 that she hasn’t had a countywide election — though there were still municipal elections taking place.

When elections are on the rise, both Hamilton and Ledford said, it’s because people move, die or run for higher office and leave their old seats behind.

“Personally, I think I would be a little fatigued after a while,” Ledford said of voting in one race after another. “When it’s back to back, it gets to be a frustration.”

Barron, in Fulton, said it’s been hard on his office, too. When a quarter of the year is an election day, and there are voter registration deadlines and qualifying before that, it’s difficult to take a day off.

He also said the county may look for new ways to share the cost of special elections with its cities — particularly if there are more years with so many more elections than were anticipated.

“Now, it’s just getting to the point where we always have them,” Barron said. “It’s all triggered by resignations to run for another office.”

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