Sunday, April 28, 2024

Oconee County Voters Will Confront Long Ballot Requiring A Lot Of Reading As Early Voting Begins

***Incumbents Being Challenged***

Voters participating in early voting for the 2024 General Primary/Nonpartisan General Election starting at 8 a.m. Monday will confront a long and complex ballot.

Those selecting the Republican Ballot will see contests for County Commission Chair and County Commission Post 4, Board of Education Post 1 Chair, Post 4 and Post 5, eight nonbinding Party Questions, and, for those in six of the county’s eight precincts, a contest for House District 121.

Those selecting the Democratic Ballot will see contests for the U.S. House of Representatives, eight nonbinding state Democratic Party Questions, and five Oconee County Democratic Party Questions.

Both the Democratic and Republican ballots, as well as the Nonpartisan ballot–for those who do not wish to participate in either of the party primaries–have a contest for one of the state Supreme Court Justices and for one of the Judges for the state Court of Appeals.

All three ballots–Republican, Democratic, Nonpartisan–also contain 10 Oconee County Special Election Questions all labeled Homestead Exemption.

Those 10 items are quite lengthy and make little sense as they are presented.

They are designed to eliminate some existing tax relief benefits and replace them with others that Oconee County Commissioners say are more generous, more equitable, and more easily administered.

Early voting runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until May 17 and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday May 4 and Saturday May 11 at the Oconee County Administrative Building, 7635 Macon Highway. Election Day is May 21.

The county has issued 302 absentee ballots to date and accepted one of those. The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot is May 10. The deadline for registering to vote was April 22.

Republican Incumbent Challenges

Pam Hendrix, a local attorney who has long been active in Republican Party politics, has organized a slate of six candidates under the label Choices 4 Oconee 2024 to challenge local Republican office holders.

Hendrix 4/4/2024

Three are running as Republicans, and three as Democrats.

Hendrix is challenging incumbent Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell in the Republican Party Primary, and Victoria Cruz is challenging incumbent Post 4 Board of Commissioners Member Mark Saxon.

Stephen Aleshire also is part of the slate, and he is running for the Republican Party nomination for the open Post 5 on the Board of Education, against Brock Toole.

Post 4 on the Board of Education also is open and is being contested by Adam Hammond, Andy Pippin, and Russell Toms, none of whom is part of the slate Hendrix has assembled.

The Post 1 Chair position on the Board of Education is being contested on the Republican Ballot by Joyce Reifsteck and Michael Ransom. Ransom currently serves in Post 5 on the Board of Education. Reifsteck is not part of the Choices 4 Oconee slate.

District 121 Rep. Marcus Wiedower is being challenged in the Republican Party Primary by John Michael Grigsby, also running on his own.

All of those candidates except for Wiedower and Grigsby met in a Oconee County Republican Party Forum in late March, and Wiedower and Grigsby appeared at the party meeting on April 22.

All of the School Board candidates excepting Pippin met in a candidate forum on April 25.

Democratic Candidates

The only contested race on the Democratic ballot is for U.S. House District 10 Representative. The seat currently is held by Republican Mike Collins.

Alexandra “Lexy” Doherty and Jessica Fore are seeking the Democratic Party nomination to run against Collins in January.

The two appeared together at the Oconee County Democratic Party meeting on April 18.

Uncontested on the local Democratic Ballot are Reginald Wade for Sheriff and Katie Green for Board of Education Post 5.

Also uncontested on the ballot are Suzannah Heimel for Post 1 on the Board of Commissioners, Sheri Ward Long for Post 4 on the Board of Education, and Laura King for Clerk of Superior Court.

All three are part of the Choices 4 Oconee slate and labeled themselves as conservatives at a forum held by Conservatives of Northeast Georgia.

The Oconee County Democratic Party has rejected the three, and Party Chair Harold Thompson sent out an email message on April 22 “urging” Democrats “to leave their names blank” on the ballot.

Party Questions

State Republican Party Questions and State and County Democratic Party Questions follow the candidate races on the party ballots.

Daniell 3/21/2024

Responses to the items are nonbinding, but that is not stated on the ballots.

The Republican statewide questions ask for opinions on hand marked paper ballots, the Fair Tax, banning of lobbyists on the State Elections Board, closed primaries, illegal migration, voting on gaming, renewal of voter registration every four years, and UN agencies.

The local Republican Party opted not to add any questions to the ballot.

The Democratic statewide questions ask about support for banning of assault weapons and “other common-sense gun safety reforms,” incentivizing clear energy production, expanding voter access, protecting reproductive freedom, ending private school vouchers, raising the minimum wage, prohibiting prisoner “servitude,” and increasing the affordable housing supply.

The five local questions ask about responsibility for selection of books in a public library, private religious instruction in public schools, teachers carrying loaded firearms in the classroom, “sufficient recourse” with the Board of Education or the Board of Commissioners, and belief about election results in Georgia “in the last three cycles.”

Nonpartisan Races

The party questions on both ballots are followed by the races that are part of the Nonpartisan General Election. These are the first items on the Nonpartisan Ballot.

First listed are the four races for the Supreme Court, with only incumbent Andrew Pinson having opposition.

The races by definition are nonpartisan, but Barrow is a former Democratic Congressman who has made reproductive rights his primary issue and Pinson was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Seven Court of Appeals Judgeships also are on the ballot, but only one of them, for an open seat to succeed M. Yvette Miller, is being contested.

The two candidates are Jeff Davis, who lives in Madison County, and Tabitha Ponder from Cobb County.

At the bottom of the Nonpartisan Judicial Ballot are the names of H. Patrick Haggard and Lawton Evans Stephens, both running unopposed for Superior Court Judge for the Western Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Oconee and Clarke counties.

The final judicial race is for Oconee County Probate Court Judge, with incumbent Mike Hunsinger running unopposed.

The judicial races are final, and the names of the candidates will not appear again on the November ballot.

10 Homestead Exemption Questions

The 10 Homestead Exemption items make up the final pages of the ballot, and someone confronting them for the first time is unlikely to make any sense of them.

10 Homestead Items
Nonpartisan Ballot
Click To Enlarge

The purpose of the 10 referendum items is to repeal legislation that provides current exemptions and replace those repealed exemptions with new ones, though it does not say that anywhere.

If all 10 items are approved with a Yes vote, the net effect will be to increase the size of the homestead exemption from $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 for all home owners and to $10,000 in 2035 and add an additional $10,000 exemption for those 75 years old and older in 2025.

Approval also will freeze property tax assessments automatically for those 65 years old and older.

It is very difficult to know that from reading the items that appear on the ballot.

The items are interrelated, so passage of all 10 is required for any of the changes to go into effect.

Structure of Questions

The order of the 10 items on the ballot seems almost to be random.

Question 1 and Question 7 deal with repeal of related exemptions based on income.

Question 4 and 10 also deal with repeal of an existing exemption based on income. Question 4 lists this exemption for county taxes; Question 10 lists that same exemption for school taxes.

Questions 2 and 9 provide the same new homestead exemption of $10,000 for home owners when they turn 75, first (Question 2) for computation of county taxes and then (Question 9) for school taxes.

Question 3 provides the automatic tax freeze when a person turns 65 for county taxes, and Question 6 provides that freeze for school taxes. The word “freeze” never appears in the language.

Instead, the language refers to “an exemption an amount equal to the amount by which the current year assessed value of a homestead exceeds the base year assessed value.”

Questions 5 and 8 provide the increase in homestead exemptions to $5,000 in 2025 and $10,000 in 2035, first for county taxes (Question 5) and then for school taxes (Question 8).

The amounts listed, however, are $3,000 and $8,000, because they are added to the $2,000 base statewide exemption already in place.

County Information Campaign

Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell has been tireless in explaining these changes in the homestead exemptions.

He has spoken about them at Town Hall meetings going back more than a year, and he spoke recently at both the Democratic and Republican party meetings.

The county also has provided materials on its web site that go through each of the 10 items and also provide an example of what the changes will mean for a typical home owner.

Daniell has said repeatedly that anyone with current exemptions will retain them even after these changes go into effect, but no new applications for the old exemption will be accepted.

Question 7, which ends acceptances for an exemption based on income, would make the biggest change, eliminating a total tax waiver for those with a household income, set in 2006, when the legislation was passed, at $40,000 or less.

The legislation, under the sponsorship of then Rep. Bob Smith, included an inflationary adjustment, and in 2023, the household income figure was $59,184.

According to figures provided by Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle, 653 home owners in 2023 paid no property taxes to either the county or to Oconee County Schools based on this exemption.

Daniell has said the county lacks the resources to adequately audit this program.

He also said that people have talked with him about techniques for moving income so as to qualify, and that some elderly are disadvantaged by the program when someone moves into their home to provide home care, increasing the household income.

Sample Ballots

The sample ballot for the Republican Party is HERE.

The sample ballot for the Democratic Party is HERE.

The Nonpartisan Election Sample Ballot is HERE.

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