Commentary: Vote buying, beer and small town politics

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In local politics, truth is often stranger than fiction. This year in Georgia, we have a heated governor’s race, several other statewide offices that have crowded fields of candidates, and a slew of state house and senate races that are being contested.

But while the governor’s race has been heating up and some of the other races have started to get a little nasty, nothing that has happened so far this election season has been as unusual as a local mayor and city council race in Blythe, Georgia.

You’ve never heard of Blythe? Well, sit down and let me tell you a little story about an election in a little town in East Georgia with a population of about 700, give or take three or four.

On March 20, a special election was held for the city’s mayor. The race was between Phillip Stewart, a mechanic by trade, and former city councilwoman Cyndi Parham, who resigned from her seat to run for mayor. To call the election close would be an understatement. Stewart won by just four votes, but that razor-thin margin isn’t the subject of this story and isn’t that unusual in smaller towns in Georgia.

According to court documents, one of the votes cast for Stewart may have been purchased with alcohol and tobacco. Authorities say John Daniel Martin, a volunteer for Stewart’s campaign who was tasked with making campaign signs, may have made a deal with a voter who was not quite 21 years old to supply alcohol and tobacco in exchange for a vote for Stewart.

Martin isn’t just an ordinary campaign volunteer though. His name is on the ballot for the May 22 election for the seat Parham vacated to run for mayor. So, a candidate to represent the citizens of Blythe is being accused of buying votes.

Now, you know that buying alcohol for someone who is under the drinking age is illegal. What you may not realize is that exchanging money or goods for voting is also illegal. You may recall that Starbucks got in trouble a few years ago for offering free coffee to voters.

Martin was indicted on charges of vote buying and supplying alcohol to someone under age 21. He plead not guilty to the charges last month. As for newly installed Mayor Stewart, he has told local media that Martin was just a family friend whom he didn’t know all that well.

The dispute over the Blythe election isn’t over though. According to The Augusta Chronicle, Parham is still challenging the outcome, claiming Stewart’s four-vote win was due to four voters who weren’t Blythe residents.

Now, let’s talk a little bit about voter turnout. Remember, Blythe is a town of just over or just under 700 residents. Out of those 700 or so residents, 425 are registered to vote. Out of those 425, just 118 chose to vote in the March election. I wonder what those other 307 potential voters in Blythe were busy doing that day.