While campaigning hard in their race to become the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit’s newest Superior Court judge, and both sounding optimistic, Martha Hall and Michael Muldrew contend with dreary projections for turnout in the July 26 runoff.
In three counties of the circuit – Effingham, Jenkins and Screven – the Superior Court judgeship will be the only thing on the ballot. The fourth and largest county, Bulloch, also has a race for probate judge, and Board of Commissioners District 2, roughly half of the county, has a runoff for a commission seat, at least giving voters more than one reason to go to the polls.
Muldrew, currently chief assistant district attorney in the circuit, led in the May 24 primary, with 41 percent of the votes to 39 percent for Hall, currently a private practice attorney and previously an assistant district attorney for six and half years. But while Muldrew had a strong lead in Bulloch County, Hall led in all three other counties. Mickey Kicklighter, no longer in the race after placing third overall, outpolled Muldrew in Effingham County.
Now Hall and her supporters are recanvassing many precincts, going door to door to see people who didn’t vote May 24, as well as those who did.
“One thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that you don’t have to have voted in the primary to actually vote in the runoff,” Hall said. “So you can secure people who maybe forgot to vote or didn’t get a chance to.”
Hall often has 20 to 25 campaign helpers out greeting voters at a given time, she said.
“We have had teams in every county during the week, on the weekends, just super-dedicated people,” she said.
Muldrew said this stage of the election, since the primary, is going very well for him as he meets more potential voters. With almost 155,000 people in the judicial circuit, meeting everyone during a campaign season is impossible, but he is trying to meet as many as he can, he said.
“I’m continuing to keep in touch with my huge number of supporters, and I’ve been very encouraged about how energized they are and excited that I received the most votes in the circuit, and we’re just continually getting out, meeting new people,” Muldrew said.
In her appeals to voters, Hall touts an interest in protecting children and her mix of family law, defense and prosecutorial experience. Besides the canvassing effort, she has planned “grandparents’ rights” seminars, including one at her Springfield law office Tuesday and another at her Statesboro campaign office Thursday. These address a concern she has heard while campaigning, from grandparents about loss of contact with grandchildren after divorces, she said.
Muldrew cites his 25 years of legal experience, including more than 20 years serving with the district attorney’s office in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit courts, and says his record for ethics and professionalism speaks for itself. He plans to meet voters while attending Fourth of July celebrations in as many of the counties – at least three – as have these planned next weekend. He also said his campaign has been inundated with requests for more signs and is trying to get these out to supporters.
Asked whether her priority is winning over more Bulloch voters or motivating turnout in Effingham, Jenkins and Screven, Hall reiterated that she is campaigning in Bulloch County, which historically has the most voters. But she added that she also wants to rally supporters in the other counties.
“What I want to try to do in those counties is, A, tell the folks I appreciate them coming out and, B, then encourage them to get back out there at the tail end of summer and vote again,” Hall said.
The corresponding question for Muldrew was whether he seeks to build on his Bulloch lead or win over more voters in the other counties.
“The key is just getting my base of supporters out,” he said. “If I get the same support that I had the first time in the four counties, then I clearly win. I’ve also been contacted by a lot of people that had supported another candidate that are very excited about supporting me.”
Low turnout expected
Despite the candidates’ enthusiasm, election officials’ expectations for voter participation range from cautious to bleak. Turnout in the May 24 primary was 32.7 percent of active, registered voters in Bulloch County, despite interest in the hard-fought sheriff’s race. In Jenkins County, which also had a sheriff’s race, turnout was 37.9 percent. In Screven, the May turnout was roughly 18 percent; in Effingham, 14.4 percent.
In a runoff, “usually your turnout is lower than what the percentage was from the original election,” observed Ella Rhodes, Screven County supervisor of elections in the office of Probate Judge Debbie Brown. Screven officials have cut back drastically on the number of voting machines to be set up for the runoff, expecting turnout to be “not good because the primary didn’t turn out good,” Rhodes said.
In Jenkins County, Probate Judge Wanda Burke, who serves as election superintendent, said the turnout for a runoff in 2008 was 48 percent, but that was an in-county runoff for sheriff.
“That’s the only one I really have to compare it too,” she said. “Usually when we have runoffs and it’s not in-county, we may get 15 or 20 percent.”
Effingham County’s turnout was already lower than that for the primary.
“Just based on past history, I think it’s going to be a pretty low turnout, as runoffs go, because we only had 14 percent for the primary,” said Effingham County Election Supervisor Olivia Morgan. “I think it’s going to be about 2 percent for the runoff.”
She said she hopes it will be higher than that.
Bulloch County Election Supervisor Pat Lanier Jones said, “I think I’d be surprised if we voted 10 percent” but also said she hopes this will motivate voters to prove her wrong and participate in higher numbers.
Early voting begins July 5 and closes July 22. There will be no Saturday voting in the runoff. Bulloch County’s one early voting site will be the elections office in the County Annex on North Main Street.
The winner of the race between Hall and Muldrew will succeed Superior Court Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, who is retiring at year-end.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.