ATLANTA – Controversy over the Confederate roots of the Georgia flag helped break the Democrats' 130-year grip on the governor's office in 2002. Now a question over changing the state's flag again could give voters even more reason to show up for the state's open Democratic presidential primary.
On the March 2 ballot along with the Democratic presidential candidates — including Southerner John Edwards (search) of North Carolina — is a question asking whether Georgia should keep its current state flag, which resembles a flag used by the Confederacy, or return to an older flag featuring the state seal and five small replica flags, including the 1956 Georgia flag and its Confederate battle emblems.
Party affiliation doesn't matter in Georgia's open primary system, so voters drawn to the polls by the flag amendment — or the chance to play havoc with the race between Edwards and front-runner John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts — could affect the distribution of Georgia's 86 delegates and the outcome of the nomination.
No one is promoting or predicting such a movement. But no one thought emotions over the state flag would run so high in 2002 that a surge in votes from rural, predominantly white areas would banish the state's leading Democrats: Gov. Roy Barnes, U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, the speaker of the Georgia House, and the majority leader of the Georgia Senate.
"The flag has not been on the public's mind. The degree of interest on the Georgia flag referendum remains to be seen," said Billy Linville, a prominent Democratic consultant in Georgia whose clients include Kerry. "What effect will it have? I don't think anyone knows what will happen."
Democratic state Sen. George Hooks (search), designer of the current flag, said, "The interest here, which I hope will pick up, is about these two candidates, especially because one is a native Southerner."
GOP leaders expect most in their party will ignore the Democratic race — if they vote at all.
"I don't think there's anything to attract Republicans to cross over," Georgia GOP Chairman Alec Poitevint said.
Politics played a role in the timing of the flag referendum.
The question was placed on the March 2 election by the Democratic House and the Republican Senate with the approval of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Perdue had pledged during his campaign in 2002 to put the flag up for a vote by the people. However, Republicans didn't want the question on the general election ballot Nov. 2, where a flag referendum could spark a huge turnout by blacks and moderate whites and hurt President Bush's re-election attempt. Having a flag question on the ballot also would bring questions for Bush, who defended the right of residents to fly the Confederate flag over the South Carolina Capitol during his initial presidential campaign. It since has been removed.
"This was an effort to minimize embarrassment for the president," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black.
After the date was settled, Perdue and other state leaders had second thoughts about whether the red-and-blue Confederate battle cross that had dominated the flag for 45 years should be among the choices. While supporters of the battle cross say it symbolizes their Southern heritage, others say it is a symbol of racism and hatred.
State officials agreed it was time to let the debate cool down. They decided to allow voters to choose between the flag that flew from 2001 to 2003, featuring the state seal on a blue background, or the current flag, which has three red-and-white stripes and the state seal.
One of the flags used by the Confederacy also had three red-and-white stripes with white stars where the Georgia flag has its state seal.
The emotion that had marked the debate practically disappeared. The groups that were at odds over removing the star-studded Confederate battle "X" from the flag — the state NAACP and Southern heritage organizations — are not promoting one over the other this time.
"I don't see a groundswell either way," said Jeff Davis, director of the Georgia Heritage Coalition, which supports the Confederate battle emblem. "People don't care about these flags at all."
Nor are the state's major political parties taking sides, which could further diminish voter interest in the flag referendum. So, too, might the fact that the referendum merely expresses a preference. It is a nonbinding vote, leaving any changes in the hands of the Legislature. And lawmakers are unlikely to revisit the controversy.