The most overlooked Georgia political development since the 2006 election may well be the increasing level of partisanship in our secretary of state's office. Most Georgians don't think about their secretary of state very often. If they do, they interact with the office in one of its more mundane functions, which include issuing licenses for trades like cosmetology and serving as the filing agency for corporate records.
Those responsibilities, however, are not what give the position its real power. That comes from the secretary of state's regulation and administration of our elections. When one controls the process of choosing all of our other elected leaders, one has the ability to fundamentally influence the direction of our government.
Before Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel was elected in 2006, the office was a largely apolitical bureaucracy staffed by career employees. Like most government agencies, those bureaucrats were varied in their ability and commitment to their jobs, but they were not widely regarded as carrying out the political bidding of the Democratic Party, of which all secretaries of state before Handel were members.
In fact, the elected secretaries of state were surprisingly nonpartisan, often pursuing election reforms that ran counter to the political interests of Democrats. For example, Cathy Cox, the Democrat who preceded Handel, successfully pursued an early voting initiative that made casting a ballot more convenient. She did so even though all evidence from other states (and now Georgia) indicates that it results in a large net gain in votes for Republican candidates, particularly in growing exurban areas. In addition, Cox, while working as assistant secretary of state under her predecessor, Lewis Massey, helped enact Georgia's first law requiring voters to show identification to cast a ballot. The Massey/Cox law was less restrictive than the recent Republican initiative requiring voters to have photo identification which has raised Democratic hackles. The Massey/Cox law, however, also met with resistance from Democrats concerned that their voters were more likely to be disenfranchised by it.
Now that Handel has taken control of the office, nonpartisan tradition is gone with the wind. She's been compared to former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was made famous during the 2000 vote recount of the state's vote for president between George W. Bush and Al Gore. That comparison is not particularly apt, because Harris was an accidental pawn in a game far larger than she, and her office was essentially commandeered during the recount drama by national Republican operatives. In contrast, Handel is part of a long-range plan by Republicans to use the secretary of state's office to solidify and expand their hold on Georgia politics.
Handel's recent conduct has provided plenty of examples of the GOP plan in action. Perhaps her most egregious act was her recent attempt to disqualify Jim Powell, a Democrat running for the Public Service Commission. Powell, a candidate widely regarded as an appealing prospect for the PSC, was forced to go to court to block Handel's attempt to remove him from the ballot the day before this summer's primary. Handel tried to boot Powell at the last minute, despite the fact that an administrative law judge, to whom Handel had referred a question regarding Powell's residency in his PSC district, reviewed the evidence and ruled that Powell was eligible to run for the office.
Other recent examples of partisan shenanigans have occurred as well. In June, when state Sen. Joe Carter, R-Tifton, withdrew as a candidate for re-election to run for a judgeship, his Senate seat was left without a candidate. (Carter was running unopposed.) State law requires that Handel reopen qualifying for the seat, but she brazenly did so only for Republicans, ensuring that the party would not have an open Senate seat to defend. State Democrats considered challenging her decision in court but demurred when their state party could not produce a candidate.
Handel also has been fighting tooth and nail to allow state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, to run unopposed. Jacobs made an odd decision to switch from Democrat to Republican in an intown, Democrat-trending seat, during what may be the worst Republican year since Watergate. Handel kicked his Democratic opponent off the ballot, and is doing everything in her power to keep Michelle Conlon, an independent candidate, out of the race as well. Conlon is now suing Handel for throwing out a multitude of seemingly valid petition signatures collected by Conlon to qualify as an independent.
What we are witnessing is the skillful and shameless exploitation of power to ensure its perpetuation. As Handel and her partisan minders march on, each small decision makes a Democratic comeback in Georgia less and less likely - a plotline that should be left for the voters to decide, not some state bureaucrat.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.