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Vote for districts gets state attention
Legislators could pursue bill in 2009
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County voters have spoken and their five state delegates say they are ready to consider action.

In balloting for the July 15 primary, more than 72 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats said they want to elect their county commissioners and school board members by district.

Neither state Sen. Jack Murphy nor District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton, both Republicans from Cumming, were surprised by the decision.

"I have felt that for several years this would eventually happen," Hamilton said.

Murphy said he felt like it would pass because he had "talked to enough people who wanted it."
"But I was really surprised by how overwhelmingly it passed, which is certainly a mandate to get it done," he said.

Currently, a candidate from one district is selected by voters from all five of the county's districts.

Though the ballot questions were nonbinding, local legislators plan to begin crafting a bill to change the setup.
The bill could be introduced in the upcoming session, which begins January, though research is needed to determine the best format.

One possible sticking point could be whether commissioners and board members elected by district get to tap one of their own to serve as chairman or whether that person is elected at-large by the voters.

Most small counties in Georgia have at-large elections. With Forsyth's rapidly growing population, however, the county likely has outgrown its ability to have them, said Chief Voter Registrar Gary J. Smith.

There are pros and cons to both sides.

Supporters of district voting say it allows voters within each district to choose their representation, and gives all five districts their own voice.

In doing so, however, the board can have five conflicting opinions, making decisions difficult.

At-large elections can be beneficial, proponents say, because all voters are given an equal say in who serves the entire county.

But by allowing the whole county to vote for a district commissioner, a commissioner who didn't carry his or her own district, could still be put into office as its representative.

Opponents of district voting also note that the July 15 primary did not draw a large turnout, with 14,632 of Forsyth's 87,254 registered voters, or about 17 percent, participating.

Of those, 9,282 Republicans and 1,227 Democrats favored the measure.

During the 2006 election, now Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse won re-election in District 1, fending off a challenge from Pete Amos with nearly 53 percent of the vote.

But had the race been decided in just their district, Amos would be serving on the board after taking nearly 61 percent of the District 1 vote.

"I would have been out of politics," Laughinghouse said.

Still, he said that's not why he opposes voting by district.

"When that happens, you're going to find the commissioner then only has to be concerned with their district, and doesn't necessarily have to be involved in issues countywide," Laughinghouse said.

"If I'm only concerned with my district, and I don't have to be responsible to the voters in any other district, I'm not going to perhaps be as involved in the issues that you normally would be.

"So you're not going to be connected and what you've got is five commissioners making decisions that affect you and you only have a voice in choosing one."

Laughinghouse and District 3 Commissioner Jim Harrell are up for re-election in 2010. Like his colleague, Harrell doesn't support district voting.

Harrell carried his own district in 2006, when he received more than 61 percent of the county's vote to defeat incumbent Jack Conway.

"If you like earmarks, then you would like voting by districts," he said. "Because if I'm just a politician and not there to serve the whole county, then I'm going to do just the things that are good for my district.

"This is exactly what happens in the Congress and Senate when they do earmarks. I'll do this for you if you'll do this for me. I think this is extremely poor politics and it's certainly divisive."

But it may not matter what Harrell and Laughinghouse think.

Commission support is not necessary on a bill affecting the county as long as all five members of the local legislative delegation agree on the measure.

And to date, it appears they appear willing to support legislation to implement voting by districts.