Saturday, May 18, 2024

Early Voting Picks Up In Final Week, But Turnout Remains Light; Outcome Of Competitive Races, Tax Exemptions In Hands Of Few

Only 10.1 Percent Of Eligible Voters Have Cast Ballots***

Early voting in Oconee County for the May 21 General Primary/Nonpartisan General Election picked up sharply in the final five days of voting, with 1,707 out of Oconee County’s 33,143 voters casting a ballot, or more than had voted in the previous 12 days of early voting.

The county Office of Elections and Voter Registration also has received 203 returned Absentee By Mail ballots.

With the 3,130 votes cast Advance In Person and those returned mail ballots, 3,333 voters had cast a ballot by the end of the day on Friday, or 10.1 percent of the total.

Comparisons with turnout in the 2020 General Primary and Nonpartisan General Election are not likely to be meaningful because that election was delayed and merged with the presidential primary because of the pandemic.

In addition, no county referenda were on the ballot in 2020, while the current ballot asks voters to decide on a change in county homestead and senior exemptions to property taxes.

In 2022, when only one competitive local race was on the Republican Ballot and none were on the Democratic Ballot, and no local referendum was on the ballot, turnout was 41.9 percent.

In 2022, 43.8 percent of the vote was cast before election day, with the remaining 56.2 in election day voting.

The suggestion is that only a small percentage of registered voters–probably about a quarter--is likely to decide the outcome of the competitive races and the referendums on tax exemptions.

Voting is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day at the county’s eight precinct polling locations.

Early Voting By Day, Party

On Friday, 573 persons cast a ballot in person at the county Administrative Building, the largest number to participate in Advance In Person Voting during the 17 days it ran.

Click To Enlarge

The second largest number had been on Thursday, with 396 voters casting a ballot.

Each day this past week set a new record except Monday, suggesting some late interest in the election.

Of the ballots cast Advance In Person, 502 were Democratic, 65 were Nonpartisan, and 2,563 were Republican.

Of the mail ballots returned, 60 were Democratic and 143 were Republican. None were Nonpartisan.

So far, 16.9 percent of the ballots returned were Democratic, and 81.2 percent were Republican, with the remaining 1.9 percent Nonpartisan.

The recent highwater mark for Democratic voting in Oconee County was in the 2020 Presidential Election, when Joe Biden received 32.4 percent of the vote to Donald Trump’s 65.9 percent.

Those figures suggest that about a third of the partisan ballots in the May 21 primary should be Democratic. Democrat-leaning voters could be voting in the Republican Primary or not voting at all.

A total of 149 issued absentee ballots that have not yet been returned, 62 are Democratic, two are Nonpartisan, and 85 are Republican.

Competitive Races

The Republican Party has five competitive races on the ballot on Tuesday, the same number as in the postponed election in June of 2020.

Incumbent John Daniell is competing with Pam Hendrix for the Board of Commissioners Chair, and incumbent Mark Saxon is competing with Victoria Cruz for Post 4 on the Board of Commissioners.

All three of the open positions on the Board of Education have at last two candidates.

Michael Ransom, who currently holds Post 5 on the Board of Education, and Joyce Reifsteck are seeking Post 1, which is designated as the Chair of the Board. Current Board Chair Kim Argo is not seeking re-election.

Adam Hammond, Andy Pippin, and Russell Toms are seeking Post 4 on the Board. Current Board Member Tim Burgess is not running for re-election.

Stephen Aleshire and Brock Toole are both seeking the Republican Party nomination for Post 5 on the Board of Education. Ransom currently holds that position.

Hendrix, Cruz, Reifsteck, and Aleshire labeled themselves as conservative challengers of more moderate Republicans in their presentations to the Conservatives of Northeast Georgia.

On the Democratic ballot, the only local competitive race is for the party nomination to run against incumbent Mike Collins in the 10th Congressional District.

Ballot Items

At the end of the long ballot, voters will confront 10 Special Election Items, each labeled Homestead Exemption.

On the Democratic and Republican ballots, these items follow a series of partisan questions of much less significance, since they are nonbinding.

The 10 Special Election Items are binding, and all 10 of them must pass for any of the proposed changes to take place.

The items are not logically organized, and the language used makes little sense on its face. It is impossible for someone who has not followed the discussion to know what the ballot items are designed to do.

Those voters could skip the 10 questions, or they could vote against them out of a fear of change.

What low turnout means for the outcome of the items is an unknown.

Goals For 10 Items

The first goal of the 10 items, according to Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell, is to provide tax relief to all homeowners in the county through increased homestead exemptions.

Daniell Before Oconee County Democrats
Explaining 10 Items On Ballot

The second goal is to standardize and make automatic tax relief for homeowners 65 years old and older through a freeze of property tax assessments that will be granted automatically when a homeowner turns 65.

The goal also is to automatically increase the homestead exemption when a homeowner turns 75.

To accomplish these goals, the 10 items ask voters to “repeal” three existing exemptions, to close “the acceptance of new applications” for a fourth, and to approve six items that “provide” new exemptions and an assessment freeze.

Daniell has emphasized that no one currently receiving any of the exemptions will lose those exemptions.

The four exemptions that are being phased out are all income based, however, and seniors who might have qualified for one of those exemptions in the future clearly will receive considerably less of a benefit if voters approve the 10-item package, as is required for any of the changes to go into effect.

Repeal Items

Item 1 repeals the current tax freeze for those 65 years old and older, which is income based and requires an application, and replaces it with an automatic freeze, through Items 3 and Item 6, that is based solely on age (65 years old) of the homeowner. No application is needed.

Items 4 and 10 repeal a $15,000 homestead tax exemption for those 65 years old and older who have annual incomes not exceeding $15,000.

Daniell has said that these homeowners, who are not now receiving the property assessment freeze, will double the benefit from that freeze, which is put into place through Items 3 and Item 6.

Item 7 closes the application for a tax exemption for those homeowners 65 years old an older “whose gross household income does not exceed” an amount set at $40,000 back in 2006.

That legislation, introduced in the General Assembly by then Rep. Bob Smith, had an inflation adjustment clause.

In 2023, the $40,000 had become $59,184.

According to Oconee County 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 On Changes

Daniell has spoken and answered questions for more than a year about the reasons for the proposed changes.

He has said that many people do not know about the current options available to them, so many eligible people are not getting the relief they are entitled to.

By moving to an age-based, automatic system, provision of the benefit will be automatic and equitable, he has said.

Daniell also has said the county lacks the resources to adequately audit the program that provides a total tax waiver for those with household incomes of $59,184.

Daniell 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, thereby increasing the household income.

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

Specific Changes

The 10 ballot items will 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.

They will add an additional $10,000 exemption for those 75 years old and older in 2025, and freeze property tax assessments automatically for those 65 years old and older.

If voters say YES on all 10 items, a person with a home appraised at $400,000 will get a reduction in property taxes in 2025 of $59.47, based on the current millage rates.

That savings will go to $158.59 in 2035.

For a $400,000 home owned by a person 75 years old or older, the savings in 2025 will be $207.71.

The General Assembly during the session that end in March passed a law that would have increased the state homestead exemption from its current $2,000 to $4,000.

Gov. Brian Kemp has vetoed the bill because the proposed ballot language did not match the amounts in the bill.

No comments: