Nearly as often as Cowetans ask for a Krispy Kreme, they bemoan the lack of liquor stores in most parts of Coweta County.
Social media complaints about the dearth of distilled spirits tend to lay the blame at the feet of the Newnan City Council or Coweta County Commissioners, sometimes with comments that elected officials should “step out of the ‘50s.”
But under Georgia law, only the people can “wet up” a county – elected officials have nothing to do with it.
Allowing liquor stores is a multi-step process that first requires a petition drive. If the petition drive is successful, the issue then goes on the ballot. If the ballot question passes, local governments then are required to pass rules regulating the stores, but they cannot stop them from opening.
To get the liquor referendum on the ballot, a petition drive must collect signatures from 35 percent of the “registered and qualified” voters in the jurisdiction, based on the most recent general election. In larger communities, getting that many signatures can be quite a feat, so liquor stores tend to be in specific cities, not in unincorporated areas of a county.
To get a liquor referendum on the ballot in the city of Newnan, a petition drive would have to collect at least 8,278 signatures, based on current voter registration numbers. The required number of signatures is based on the most recent general election at the time the petition is filed with elections officials.
To get a referendum on the ballot in unincorporated Coweta, the petition would have to collect at least 32,467 signatures.
The bar is significantly lower in Coweta’s smaller cities and towns. For Turin, Sharpsburg, and Moreland, the number of signatures needed ranges from 88 to 94. In Haralson, Coweta’s smallest town, it would only take 47 verified signatures to put a package liquor referendum on the ballot.
A petition in Senoia would need 1,054 signatures.
There have been at least three liquor petition drives in Senoia over the years, none of them successful. The last was in 2011. The city’s Downtown Development Authority had planned to sponsor the petition drive, but the city’s attorney said that the DDA, which receives some public money, couldn’t advocate for passage, putting a stop to the DDA’s official participation.
Robert Belisle, who was then the mayor of Senoia, participated in the 2011 petition drive and one in 2004.
In 2004, “I had a startling lack of success,” he told The Newnan Times-Herald in 2011. At the time, they had collected several hundred signatures, most of them during the city’s Memorial Day celebration.
The city has grown since then, when only 668 signatures were needed.
Grantville is the only municipality in Coweta with liquor stores. Rochelle Jabaley, who still owns a liquor store in Grantville, circulated the petition that put the issue on the ballot in 1981. She said in 2011 that she didn’t have any problem getting enough signatures and the ballot measure passed easily.
Circulating a package liquor petition is a precise business – there are many rules and the petition must be done correctly to count.
Stony McGill, assistant director of the Georgia Alcohol Dealers Association, said that some of the state law is subject to interpretation by elections officials, so he recommends that anyone wanting to do a petition drive start by meeting with the local elections superintendent.
“...You need to make sure that they are going to accept what you’re submitting,” McGill said.
Though the GADA doesn’t get involved in petition drives, McGill said he can help steer people in the right direction and connect them with those who have mounted successful drives in the past.
Coweta Elections Superintendent Jane Scoggins said every petition drive must have a sponsor, and that sponsor must be a registered and qualified voter in the jurisdiction. The “qualified” designation means that the person’s current address is the same as what is on the voter registration card. If a person moved between the time of signing the petition and the petition being verified, that person wouldn’t be considered a qualified voter and the signature wouldn’t count.
All pages of the petition must be the same size and every sheet must say what the petition is for and carry the name and signature of the person circulating that particular page. And each page must be notarized, Scoggins said. The person notarizing the pages can’t be a signer of the petition.
Each entry on the petition must include the voter’s name, address, birthday and signature.
For some of Coweta’s municipalities – Senoia, Sharpsburg and Moreland – the vast majority of people who have that town’s mailing address don’t actually live inside the city limits. If, for instance, someone who had a Senoia mailing address but didn’t live inside the city limits signed a petition for Senoia, that petition signature would not count.
There is no time limit on collecting petition signatures – a petition drive can go on for years. But once the petition is submitted, it has to be right. If elections officials find there aren’t enough verified signatures, the entire petition is dismissed, and a new petition drive can’t be started for two years. The same two-year waiting period applies if the liquor referendum is defeated at the ballot box.
A new liquor store recently opened near the Coweta County line in Whitesburg. Voters in Whitesburg approved package liquor sales in 2015.
McGill was asked if he thinks the 35 percent petition requirement sets too high a bar.
“If you can’t get the people to put it on the ballot, you’re probably not going to be able to pass it anyway,” he said.
A petition sponsor’s approach to getting signatures is key, he said. Petition sponsors can talk about the tax revenue that liquor stores would bring, for instance. It’s also important to ask the question in the right way and to circulate in the petition correctly.
“You can’t just put some papers in convenience stores and think people are going to sign and you’re going to get accurate information,” McGill said. “It really takes some organized effort to get it done.”
With the petition drive format, people in the community have plenty of time to find out about the proposal and to understand it.
“We always say it is a good barometer,” McGill said.
For more information about how to mount a package liquor petition drive, contact Coweta Elections Superintendent Jane Scoggins at 678-854-0015.