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Vote by district is likely
Hamilton enters two House bills
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Forsyth County News

The way Forsyth voters elect their county commissioners and school board members may never be the same.

District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton has authored two House bills, each of which would revise the county's current election process to require both races be decided by voters living in a candidate's district.

Currently, candidates for either panel are elected countywide, though they must run in the district in which they reside.

During the 2008 primary, both the local Republican and Democratic parties asked voters if the county charter should be "revised to provide that county commissioners and school board members be elected by the voters in their respective districts."

Nearly 86 percent of Democratic voters and nearly 73 percent of Republican voters said "yes."

"That really was an affirmation that this wasn't an isolated group of people that were advocating for it," Hamilton said. "We felt like, as a delegation, that we had somewhat of a mandate by the people voicing that they really wanted this."

Both bills, one for the county commission and the other for the school board, will be introduced in the House sometime next week.

Each measure has received support from all five of Forsyth's state delegates and the governor.

If approved in the General Assembly, the bills would go into effect within 45 days of the governor's signature, in time for the July 2010 primary election.

Voter response played a key role, but Hamilton said it wasn't the only reason he wrote the bills.

"What I wanted to do was try as best I could to take the emotion out of it," he said. "That's why I went out and had research done. Because I wanted not just the voters' desire, but I wanted to make sure that I had other facts."

Of the 22 counties with a population of more than 100,000, only Forsyth and Houston vote at-large for their commissioners, Hamilton said. Of Georgia's 159 counties, just 65 voted by district in 1986. In 2007, however, 114 counties did so.

School Board Chairwoman Ann Crow, who is up for re-election in 2010, said she thinks voting by district is best for the county.

"I don't think either way is ideal," she said. "But I think that our county is getting to the point where we're going to have to do that. It's almost prohibitive to try to raise the kind of money you would need to reach the whole county.

"If you only have to campaign in one district, and not the whole county, then you're able to concentrate on that one district. And that might also be a positive aspect to increase voter turnout."

Commissioner Jim Harrell, who won his District 3 seat in a 2006 runoff, was chosen by voters in both the county and his district, which includes southwestern Forsyth. Harrell, up for re-election in 2010, said he is "totally opposed" to electing commissioners by district.

"We vote on all of the issues, and I'd like to see us work on issues for the county as a whole, as opposed to each person just working on each individual district," he said. "My view is if you like earmarks, you will like seeing your commissioners voted on by district."

Harrell said the legislative delegation needed to consider that "only a very small fraction of the people of the county actually voted when the ballot issue was on there."

Of more than 87,000 registered voters during the 2008 primary election, 14,248 voted answered the vote-by-district question. Still, more voters answered the ballot question than actually voted for any commission or school board candidate.

If Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse's 2006 race had been determined by voters in his District 1, opponent Pete Amos would be serving instead.

Though Laughinghouse received nearly 53 percent of the county's vote, Amos took 61 percent of the district's vote.

With a vote-by-district election, Laughinghouse said voters would "lose the ability to vote for those people that are controlling their lives."

"But if that's what our legislators want, I guess that's what they'll get," he said. "They're in control.

"It's an old Democratic trick, which is kind of like gerrymandering to get incumbents in control and keep them there," he said. "I'm just surprised that Republican legislative delegates would fall for it."

Laughinghouse said the legislation, which he believes is based on a potentially misleading question, is not a good idea.

"It was put on the ballot back in the summer with no real explanation," he said. "And most of the people I have talked to, when you explain it to them said, 'Oh, I didn't know that's what I was voting for. I thought we were voting to keep it like it is.'

"People I talked to thought they were voting to elect by district, which is what they thought they had done now. They did not realize they were voting to totally change the process."

Laughinghouse wouldn't say if he plans to seek re-election in 2010, but said he wants a representative government in the county.

"If I can't get elected in my district, I guess I'll have to consider running for the legislature," he said.

Opposition from those who would be affected by the legislation was expected, said District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy.

"There'll be some that are for it and there'll be some that are against it," he said. "But that's what the people want."

Hamilton said there have been frank conversations between delegates and commissioners.

"It's hard to argue if that's what the people want," he said. "It made a lot of sense. We see that it's not inconsistent with the way the state is continuing to grow ... So we as a delegation came together and said it's time to go ahead and honor what the people want."