Election Structures and Reform
Elected officers have served Georgia since the colonial era. A nineteen-member Commons House of Assembly was elected in 1755 to advise the royal governor. In colonial times the franchise, or right to vote, was quite limited; only white male property owners with significant land holdings were able to vote.
Over time, both the number of elective offices and the franchise have been greatly expanded. Georgia is recognized as a pioneer among the states in implementing innovative electoral policies. For example, in 1943 Georgia became the first state in the nation to allow every citizen eighteen years of age and older the right to vote in local, state, and federal elections. This provision was enacted twenty-eight years before the U.S. Constitution was amended to grant the voting privilege to all eighteen-year-olds.
All elections in Georgia are overseen by the Elections Division of the secretary of state's office. County registrars perform the duties of registering voters and conducting elections at the local level. In several smaller counties this function is handled by the judge of the probate court. At the state level it is the secretary of state's responsibility to tabulate official returns and certify the outcome, thus pronouncing a candidate duly elected to office.
The voters of Georgia elect fifteen individuals to statewide political offices: two U.S. senators; the governor; the lieutenant governor; the secretary of state; the attorney general; the state school superintendent; the commissioners of labor, agriculture, and insurance; and the five public service commissioners. The seven members of the Georgia Supreme Court and the twelve members of the State Court of Appeals are also elected statewide. Other offices are elected by districts (including Georgia's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives and members of both houses of the General Assembly). These districts are drawn by the General Assembly every ten years after the results of the U.S. census are released. Federal guidelines require relatively equal population distribution in the drawing of all districts, but such factors as established boundaries (city and county lines), political history, and race are taken into account in determining how the maps are shaped.
County and city officers (such as mayors, county commissioners, and judges) are also elected in accordance with state law. In addition, boards of directors of special and regional public authorities may be elected. Examples include water, waste treatment, and transportation authorities. The number of elected officials on each council or commission varies widely. For example, in Haralson County, in the western part of the state, a single county commissioner is elected to conduct all of the county's administration. Ten other counties also have a sole-commissioner form of government. In contrast, the consolidated governments of Athens-Clarke, Augusta-Richmond, and Columbus-Muscogee all have ten-member commissions (plus one mayor) elected by districts divided among the population of the county.
Citizens may register to vote by mail through the secretary of state's office or at a public service facility such as a board of elections office, library, Division of Family and Children Services office, armed services recruitment office, or driver's licensing authority.
To vote in Georgia one must be a citizen of the United States; must be a legal resident of the county in which one seeks to register; must have attained the age of eighteen by the day of the election; and must apply for registration thirty days before an upcoming election. Those serving sentences following conviction for a felony or those who have been declared mentally incompetent are not eligible to vote.
For a century after the Civil War (1861-65), voter registration in Georgia was a difficult and time-consuming process. Due to restrictions designed to keep African Americans from voting, citizens who wanted to register were required to go before a board of registrars to prove residence and demonstrate literacy. In the wake of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Congress, restrictions targeting racial minorities were lifted. Nonetheless, it was still relatively difficult to register to vote in Georgia until the 1980s, when additional offices were given the authority to register voters and the General Assembly passed legislation allowing voter registration drives by private interest groups and even candidates for public office themselves. The passage of federal legislation known as the Motor-Voter Act also made it easier to register to vote in Georgia as well as in the rest of the nation.
After the 2000 presidential elections, when difficulties emerged in determining the winner of Florida's electoral votes, the Georgia secretary of state, Cathy Cox, announced that she would seek the funding to install uniform voting machinery around the state of Georgia. As a result of Cox's initiative, today only one type of machine is used throughout the state in every county and jurisdiction. The system, a touch-screen imaging device, has three backup systems, and it ensures that each voter can vote only once for an office; additionally, the system alerts a voter if he or she neglects to vote for a particular office listed on the ballot.
Georgia was the first state in the nation to employ such technology statewide, and other states soon followed suit. The secretary of state's office has also been credited with using innovative technology to purge the rolls of dead and ineligible voters.