I’m writing this post to document the history of the limited access to direct democracy in the U.S. state of Georgia, and especially about the potential small-d democratic opportunities which can be used to advise city, county and state legislators. For reference, here is a Google Drive folder of all the party advisory questions placed on the ballot in Georgia at state and county levels since 2000 (ongoing at the moment).
History of direct democracy in Georgia
Georgia mostly missed the boat, or rather, the tide of the initiative & referendum movement which took more westward states by storm in the late 19th-early 20th century. From 1911-1913, the General Assembly moved to extend initiative, referendum and recall rights to the residents of four cities, including Atlanta. The first ballot measures for legislatively-referred constitutional amendments took place in 1924. The first amendments to be rejected at the ballot were five out of 13 proposed amendments on the November 4, 1930 ballot. The most recent proposed amendments to fail at the ballot was Amendment 1 on the November 8, 2016 ballot, which would have established the so-called “Opportunity School District” as a statewide at-large school district over public schools deemed “chronically failing”.
In addition, county and city governments can place questions on the ballot for all voters, and can choose a date. Counties can place a question on the ballot (whether in the nonpartisan section of a primary ballot, or on the general election ballot) by one of the following means:
- county commissioners voting to place the question on the ballot
- citizens gathering a required number of petition signatures to amend (or veto changes to) local ordinances, resolutions, and regulations.
Either option requires a majority of the city or county’s delegation in the General Assembly to file a bill in support of the referendum, and for the General Assembly to approve the bill.
In addition, there is a third way to put a question on the ballot, one which is advisory in most ways but can have an indirect, motivating impact on legislation.
Party Advisory Questions on Primary Ballots
Around April 1997, a law allowing for parties to place advisory questions on the primary ballot was passed by the General Assembly, making Georgia only one of three states to allow parties’ chairs to place questions on primary ballots (alongside Texas and South Carolina). In 2000, the Richmond County Republican Party became the first recorded county party to use this law to place a question on the primary ballot, doing so with 6 questions that year. The practice increased across many counties over the next five primaries, and in 2012 questions were placed for the first time on statewide primary ballots, with both the Democratic Party of Georgia placing 4 questions and the Georgia Republican Party placing 5.
On a few occasions in a few counties, both parties have placed the same question on the ballot, including Rockdale in 2012 and Pickens in 2018, both of which were related to the form of government to be taken by the county government. To date, no statewide primary ballot has had both parties place the question on the same ballot.
Due to the way that such polls are written, they’re usually fluffy questions which do not deviate from the party’s already-established platform. The few times that a question is fielded from outside of party orthodoxy is usually intended to gin up primary voter opposition to the question.
Marijuana/Cannabis on the Georgia Ballot
Only a few good-faith questions which deviate from party orthodoxy have been fielded by county parties, such as Henry County Republicans’ 2020 Question 4, asking Republican voters whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed to the same extent as alcohol. Republican voters approved this question 9,849 to 9,415 (51.13%-48.87%). However, in 2018, two similar questions (one asking whether medical marijuana should be legalized, and another asking the same for recreational marijuana) provided a more complicated picture among Republican voters in multiple, largely-rural counties, with 6 counties’ Republican primaries registering lopsided support for medical marijuana but the same voters in 3 of those counties registering lopsided opposition to recreational marijuana (those being the only counties which polled Republicans on recreational marijuana that year).
By comparison, marijuana has been on at least one county’s Democratic ballot every year since 2014, all winning lopsidedly at the polls:
- Cherokee and Whitfield Dems on recreational, Richmond Dems on medical (2014)
- Catoosa Dems on medical marijuana (2016)
- Forsyth and Glynn Dems on recreational (2018)
- Forsyth and Walton Dems for recreational (2020)
How to capitalize on advisory questions
I think that party advisory questions, while incredibly flawed in only being placed by party leaders on separate primary ballots, offer an opportunity for massive polling of the primary-voting public on issues, not only for well-established party platforms but also for newer ideas which have yet to be incorporated into party platforms. In addition, polling of the primary-voting public through advisory questions can offer glimpses into regional divides, nuances and knowledge about newer ideas.
For example, Cobb4Transit’s post on the results of two 2020 Democratic advisory questions in Cobb County – Question 7 on a one-center sales tax for transit funding, and Question 8 on MARTA expansion into Cobb – provides an in-depth look at the nuances of support for these positions on the Democratic side in Cobb County.
A 2020 Republican statewide question (Republican Question 2), which called for establishing closed party primaries to determine primary winners, failed by 1-2%. The data shows that the idea has support among Republicans in northern and coastal Georgia, with the greatest opposition coming from western, middle and southern Georgia Republicans. A similar question was asked to South Carolina Republicans in the 2018 and 2020 primaries, receiving 92.30% and 86.47% respectively.
I expect marijuana legalization to be on the Democratic statewide party primary ballot in 2022. It may be the biggest question that the Democratic Party of Georgia hasn’t yet asked on the statewide ballot, after a near decade of asking primary voters their position on already-settled party positions such as Medicaid expansion, expanding HOPE access and gun control.
Similarly, for LGBT civil rights activists, Whitfield’s 2014 Democratic Question 6 and Cobb’s 2020 Democratic Question 11, both of which asked voters whether their county should pass a non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity (Cobb’s listed more categories), received resounding endorsements, winning 75.58% in Whitfield and 97.41% in Cobb. This is another question that the DPG State Chair should be encouraged to ask to Democrats statewide, in regards to the proposed Georgia Civil Rights Act.
But finally, more county commissions should be encouraged to follow Wisconsin’s example in placing advisory questions on the November general election ballot.