Municipal Elections

January 16, 2019

Elections are perhaps the most fundamental element of representative democracy. Therefore, steps must be taken to insure that elections comport with requirements of the state and federal Constitution, federal statutes (most prominently the Voting Rights Act), state statutes, and city charters. Because elections are held to so many legal standards, they must be administered by well-trained, experienced, and responsible staff. In 1998, state law was changed to incorporate the municipal election code into the state election code applicable to state, county, and federal elections. A few distinctions remain between city elections and other elections, however. Most notably, the majority of municipal elections are held in odd-numbered years.

Municipal Election Superintendent
The municipal election superintendent is the administrative person responsible for a host of administrative duties associated with conducting an election (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-70). The municipal election superintendent is appointed by the city governing authority in a public meeting, but if the governing authority fails to appoint a superintendent, the city clerk automatically becomes the election superintendent. The superintendent cannot be closely related to any municipal candidate. Specifically, a superintendent cannot be a “parent, spouse, child, brother, sister, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law” of a candidate (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-70.1.). Because a poorly conducted election can bring about litigation as well as judicial orders to re-hold elections, the importance of properly trained election superintendents and staff can hardly be overemphasized. The Georgia Secretary of State maintains a Georgia Election Official Certification Program that municipal election superintendents should complete in order to assure they have the necessary training.

There are two key events in most municipal elections: qualifying and the election. Qualifying is the process through which candidates indicate their desire to run for office before the municipal election superintendent confirms that they possess the requisite legal qualifications to be eligible to do so. Candidates for municipal office must pay a qualifying fee or submit a pauper’s affidavit indicating that they cannot pay the fee (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-131(b)(2); O.C.G.A. § 21-2-131(c)(5); O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(g)). Qualifying fees for nonpartisan municipal offices are 3% of the previous year’s gross salary for the office and are to be set and published no later than February 1 of each year in which there is a regular election and at least 35 days prior to a special election (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-131(a)(1)(A)). The overwhelming majority of municipal elections in Georgia are non-partisan, and therefore the election cycle tends to be rather short. Qualifying periods shall commence no earlier than 8:30 a.m. on the third Monday in August immediately preceding the general election and shall end no later than 4:30 p.m. on the following Friday. Qualifying for special elections begins no sooner than the date of the call and must end no later than 25 days prior to the election (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(c)(3)(A); O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(d)(4)). Qualifying may be reopened by the governing authority at 9:00 a.m. the Monday following the end of the original qualifying period and closed at 5:00 p.m. that Tuesday when no individual files a notice of candidacy or pays the qualifying fee during the original qualifying period (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(c)(3)(B)). Additionally, qualifying must be reopened for those same time periods when an incumbent filed a notice of candidacy and pays the qualifying fee during the original qualifying period but then withdraws as a candidate before the end of the original qualifying period (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-132(c)(4)). Most cities conduct their own qualifying and appoint their own election superintendent.

Write-In Candidates
Georgia does allow for write-in candidates, but they also have to qualify in order to be eligible to receive votes. Write-in candidates must file a written intention of candidacy with the municipal election superintendent and publish a notice in the “official gazette of the municipality” no earlier than January 1 of the year in which the election is to be held and no later than seven days after the closing of the regular qualifying period (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-133). On occasions where no candidates have qualified during the regular qualifying period, write-in candidacies have been used to avoid putting the city through the expense of holding a special election to fill a seat unfilled in a general election.

Holding Elections
General municipal elections take place on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in each odd-numbered year, must be published in the newspaper 30 days prior to the election, and said notice must be transmitted to the Secretary of State (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-9(c)). Most city elections follow the traditional rule that a candidate must obtain more than 50% of the votes cast in order to win. Some city charters (e.g., Porterdale) have different methods of electing council members that may allow candidates receiving a plurality to win the office in order to save the city the cost of a runoff. Some charters (e.g., Chickamauga) provide that candidates run simultaneously for multiple posts with the top vote getters filling the seats. Many cities contract with their county government to conduct their municipal election.

Special Elections
From time to time cities must call special elections to fill vacancies in city elected positions or to put a referendum question authorized by state law before the voters (for instance, O.C.G.A. § 3-4-91, authorizing the sale of distilled spirits by the drink). There are specified election dates per year on which such elections may be held, with specific timelines for calling the election. As of December 2017, the special election dates were as follows:
  • for odd-numbered years, the third Tuesday in March, the third Tuesday in June, the third Tuesday in September, and the Tuesday after the first Monday in November
  • for even numbered years, the third Tuesday in March, unless there is a Presidential preference primary that year, in which case the special election must be held in conjunction with the Presidential preference primary, the date of the general primary, or the third Tuesday after the first Monday in November (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-540).
Home Rule
Although there is some room for variation in electing members of a city governing authority, almost all such changes must be made by the state legislature (O.C.G.A. § 36-35-6(a)(1)). Any such changes made by the legislature previously required preclearance by the United States Department of Justice under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 1973c). Preclearance is the term used to describe the Justice Department’s evaluation of whether a change affecting voting made by a covered jurisdiction has the effect of abridging the right to vote of anyone based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court held that the formula used by the federal government to determine which jurisdictions were required to submit to preclearance was outdated (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013)). As a result, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been rendered inoperable, and the State of Georgia and its local governments are no longer required to submit voting changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance.

For more information on local redistricting plans see the 2014 Georgia Municipal Redistricting Guide

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