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Republicans change election rules

ATLANTA -- Televised poker tournaments have boosted the popularity of card play and exposed people to the variety of games, from Caribbean Stud Poker and Texas Hold 'Em, to Seven Card Stud and Five Card Draw. Then there's the more exotic games, like Chicago, High-Low, Bid Poker and Kenosha Cheese Porn.

Whenever gamblers sit around a felt-covered table, it's understood that the dealer calls the game. And if that table is set up in a kitchen, basement or garage, the dealer usually has to explain the rules of the odder variations.

More than one player has suspected the rules were being made up as the game is played.

Now that Republicans have full control over the statehouse and governor's mansion, the deal has passed to them. It's their turn to call the game and explain the rules all the other gamblers must abide by.

They have quietly pushed a bill through the House that will make future election "tournaments" a little more interesting.

House Bill 597 sponsored by Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, makes several significant changes and has the keen interest of Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram. Opposition by Democrats in the House Government Affairs Committee and by Secretary of State Cathy Cox hasn't slowed it a bit.

The measure has many provisions. It would move non-partisan elections -- like those for judges, school boards and consolidated local governments -- from the summer primary to the fall ballot to coincide with the general election. It would extend the period for receiving overseas ballots, presumably helping Republicans garner more support from those serving in the military.

It also would repeal the so-called Coverdell Rule enacted by Democrats then in control in response to Paul Coverdell's upset victory over Sen. Wyche Fowler, D-Georgia, in 1992.

Incumbent Sen. Fowler lead the three-way general election over Mr. Coverdell and Libertarian longshot Jim Hudson, but he didn't get a majority as required by law at the time. Mr. Coverdell won with 51 percent in an unusual December runoff when he picked up the support of the Libertarian voters.

Democrats changed the rules to only require the winner to take 45 percent of the votes cast. It may have helped them hold on to Sen. Sam Nunn's seat two years later when Republican Guy Millner, Democrat Max Cleland and Libertarian Jack Cashin ran. Because of the Coverdell rule, Cleland's 49 percent was sufficient, and Mr. Millner was denied the chance to attract the Libertarian voters in a runoff.

Without a runoff, the winner of a multi-candidate race often was opposed by most voters, as Republicans are quick to point out about Bill Clinton.

Republicans often say they won over the majority of Georgia voters many years before they overcame artificial barriers like the Coverdell Rule and gerrymandered district maps thrown in their way by desperate Democrats.

There is no guarantee switching from a plurality threshold to a majority one will keep the GOP in power. Republican operatives say it could cut either way.

Instead of worrying about politics, Republican insiders say they can afford to simply do what's right because they're most likely to benefit anyway from fair elections.

The most controversial aspect of the election bill is the requirement for photo identification when registering and voting. Republicans say they want to prevent voter fraud. Democrats say it's an unnecessary hurdle to frustrate those on the margin of society most interested in government programs.

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, raised the issue in the Government Affairs Committee.

"What do we do about the elderly? They don't have a driver's license, and they certainly don't have a passport," she said, recalling one bedridden woman in her district.

Rep. Burmeister noted that the state Department of Motor Vehicle Safety issues ID cards for $10 or free even to anyone declaring pauper status. She said 6 million Georgians have either a driver's license or ID card.

"This is going to help this lady," Rep. Burmeister said.

Attorney Ann Lewis, who drafted much of the bill and is one of the lawyers who convinced a federal court to throw out the state's legislative map, acknowledged that during the 2002 and 2004 elections there were allegations of fraud from Republicans and voter intimidation from Democrats. They may have both been correct, she said.

Still, photo IDs are a simple safeguard against fraud.

"I think that certainly the potential was there," she said.

Sure, driving, cashing a check, boarding a plane and many other activities in modern society require photo identification. But Democrats argue there are plenty of legal voters who are paid in cash, don't own cars or travel, and have no other reason to carry an ID card.

While there hasn't been much public debate over HB 597, there is likely to be more as it moves through the rest of the legislative process. And a court challenge is likely if it passes.

Federal voting laws enacted in recent years cloud the issue somewhat on IDs. Each party claims the federal policy backs its position. Courts exist to settle such disputes.

Regardless of Democratic opposition, the Republicans control the deal now. Dealers don't automatically win every game, but they usually call for games with rules they're the most comfortable with.

Political consultants joke that sports are the games for kids but politics is the only game for adults. With so many candidates already announced as willing to gamble their careers under the existing rules, it will be interesting to see if any decide to fold when the new rules become law.

Web posted on Thursday, March 17, 2005


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