The daily grind is a lot, and for many people, keeping up with politics is something they have only so much attention span for. You may already know a lot about Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, but chances are you're not quite as familiar with Mark Butler.
He's the current commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor and his agency, among other things, is the one responsible for sending out unemployment payments. Those payments are a big deal to people, and were an even bigger deal in 2020 when countless workers were getting by on unemployment through the early stages of the pandemic.
The numbers were similar for every other statewide race - those known as "down-ballot," as in, literally down below governor on the ballot - from state school superintendent, a pretty important job to parents of schoolchildren, to agriculture commissioner, which for a state like Georgia is another hugely important job, to secretary of state: the job that oversees the whole election process itself.
With this guide, we aim to tell you a little bit about these various jobs you have a say in, and why they demand your attention no less than a race for governor or Senate.
We'll run through the jobs below as they appear on the ballot: first with lieutenant governor, then secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, state school superintendent and commissioner of labor.
This is not meant to be about who the candidates are or what their opinions and politics may be - but about the position itself and how it impacts you.
On first glance, the lieutenant governor job might seem like a parallel to vice president - ceremonial in a lot of ways, perhaps influential politically.
Much of that is true with Georgia's lieutenant governor role as well, but there's an important differentiating factor.
The U.S. vice president, as president of the Senate, mostly casts tie-breaking votes. As it happens, the Georgia lieutenant governor, as president of the Senate, doesn't cast tie-breaking votes at all, but is much more influential in how the Senate operates.
The Georgia lieutenant governor's role is a critical component in how legislation is introduced in the Senate, by directing bills to committees.
The Georgia Senate Press Office pointed us to Senate Rule 4-2.5, which states that, “Upon the introduction of any bill or resolution or other matter, requiring reference to a committee, the President of the Senate, shall as a matter of course and without debate, report the reference of the bill to the proper committee.”
This is how current Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan - who is not running for reelection - helped table the Buckhead cityhood movement, by steering the bill for a Buckhead cityhood vote to a Senate committee controlled by Democrats who opposed it.
As you might imagine, with this responsibility the lieutenant governor could conceivably thwart much of a governor's legislative agenda if they were from opposing parties or otherwise disagreed.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia, published by the Georgia Humanities Council, notes: "Given that the lieutenant governor is in the unique position of being a member of both the executive and legislative branches, one who does not have a compatible working relationship with a governor would be well placed to impede a governor’s legislative agenda."
The lieutenant governor also influences the Senate by appointing the chairpersons of committees, who will in turn then have an influential role in how legislation advances through the chamber.
Per the Georgia Constitution, the lieutenant governor succeeds the governor should the governor die, resign or be permanently incapacitated in some way, as well - with that succession lasting until the next general election.
Secretary of State
The Georgia secretary of state is most famously responsible for the state's election administration and verification, thanks in no small part to the contested 2020 election.
This includes pretty much every level of the election process - registration, implementation of the state voting system, maintaining the state's voter rolls, campaign finance disclosure and ultimately certifying election results.
The secretary of state doesn't make the voting rules - the state legislature crafts those laws, such as SB 202, which overhauled Georgia's voting procedures last year. But the secretary of state's office must interpret those laws and put them into practice, which gives it significant influence on how the state carries out its elections.
The office also investigates allegations of election fraud and irregularities, and employs more than 20 investigative officers. The secretary of state can refer findings to the State Election Board, which can then refer criminal cases to local or state prosecuting authorities.
Less famously, the Georgia secretary of state is also in charge of an agency with a sprawling bureaucratic remit: state public records, corporate registration, business licensing, professional licensing and charities and securities regulation.
If that wasn't enough, the secretary of state is also officially considered, by law, the keeper of the Great Seal of Georgia (a literal object under the secretary's responsibility, per Georgia Code §50-3-30: "The seal shall be either of silver or of some harder and more durable metal or composition of metals, 2 ¼ inches in diameter,") and is the custodian of the state flag and other state symbols.
That second part is also a literal matter, and according to state law the secretary shall procure and send state flags to schools, courts, county and municipal governments and state agencies.
So, whether you're voting in an election, trying to start a business, or simply need a state flag - the secretary of state is a very important job to you.
The attorney general in Georgia has significant legal responsibilities that have a major hand in how state government functions and in how it interprets and enforces the law. It is basically responsible for the proceedings any time the state goes to court for whatever reason.
The position, in short, has a very wide say in how the state conducts its legal business.
That includes, according to the AG Office's own description of its duties, "Providing opinions on legal questions concerning the State of Georgia or its agencies, which are binding on all state agencies and departments."
To put it in more tangible terms that means, in a sense, if there is a legal question about policies or regulations at, say, the Department of Driver Services, or the Division of Family & Children Services, or the Department of Corrections - the kinds of agencies many people must deal with in a very personal manner - what the attorney general says, goes.
Beyond that, the attorney general has an active role in setting state policy and can be an authoritative voice in setting the state's political agenda, in many respects.
Current AG Chris Carr - who is running for reelection - for example has made gang and human trafficking prosecutions a focus of his office's activity. He also joined other states in lawsuits against federal vaccine mandates, and has joined lawsuits against the Biden administration in several other instances.
By contrast the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Jen Jordan, has said she would not defend Georgia's abortion law because she does not believe it is lawful (an interpretation of the office's powers that Carr, for what it's worth, disagrees with).
“It’s the job of the attorney general to defend and uphold the laws of Georgia passed by the General Assembly and signed by our governor,” Carr told The Gwinnett Daily Post in September. “That’s what I do. That’s what the state constitution requires.”
The Libertarian Party candidate for AG, Martin Cowen, generally sides with Jordan in his idea of the office's independent authority to interpret law, saying the position can exert prosecutorial discretion "in refusing to prosecute abortion providers and their patients."
"The AG can influence his clients (the state and its agencies) according to the AG's moral and legal judgment," Cowen said. "So, for example, should the General Assembly try to impose a death penalty for abortion providers and their patients, the AG could and should, in my opinion, push back hard on that effort."
(You can find Cowen's full answer to our inquiry here. 11Alive also placed inquiries with the Attorney General's Office, which pointed to the duties expressly laid out in the Georgia Code, Carr's campaign and Jordan's campaign. We will update if those campaigns respond.)
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of this article is not to outline the political positions of this year's candidates, but with attorney general it's a bit unavoidable because the office can be a surprisingly political one. The AG position has broad discretion to set the terms of how the state interprets legal disputes - and legal disputes are often also political ones.
Finally, the attorney general oversees an office with a wide range of legal responsibilities.
Composed of several divisions, the agency employs attorneys and civil servants who specialize in everything from the more nuts-and-bolts legal matters of regulatory litigation or prosecuting public corruption to representing the state in civil rights cases or before the U.S. Supreme Court, should the need arise.
Commissioner of Agriculture
The commissioner of agriculture is the head of the Department of Agriculture, an agency that regulates the industry in Georgia.
The commissioner is put in charge of 18 divisions with oversight of everything from basic food safety to enforcing state regulations on "agricultural inputs" such as feed, fertilizer and pesticides.
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the department has more than 850 full-time employees. The encyclopedia describes the agency's mission as "to provide excellence in services and regulatory functions, to protect and promote agriculture and consumer interests, and to ensure an abundance of safe food and fiber" for Georgia and wherever else the state's agricultural exports may go.
The position has a fair bit of latitude to set the department's priorities - current Commissioner Gary Black (not running for reelection) has for instance particularly embraced the part of the role that involves promoting and marketing Georgia agribusiness domestically and abroad with the Georgia Grown program.
A new commissioner could, conceivably, follow Black's lead and emphasize trade and business or create new programs and focus resources on issues such as sustainable farming and climate change or orient attention on farming technology and the practices of factory farming.
Commissioner of Insurance
Taken a ride on a roller coaster lately? Then the commissioner of insurance has an impact on you.
That's perhaps not the best place to start in describing the commissioner's job - it really does center a lot around the functioning of the insurance industry in Georgia - but it underscores that the job also has a hand in some things you might not expect.
First, as far as insurance goes, the agency regulates the industry in all the fairly straightforward ways - issuing licenses, investigating fraud and taking consumer complaints. As you can find at this directory, this is the office you need to go to if you want to file a consumer insurance complaint, get or renew an insurance agent license or report suspected fraud, among other things.
Fire safety also comes under the purview of the insurance commissioner, which can include arson investigations and regulating school fire and emergency drills.
Finally, the agency is also charged with inspecting and permitting things such as elevators/escalators, amusement park rides, boilers/pressure valves, mobile homes, racetracks, cigarette manufacturing as well as general oversight of hazardous materials.
As one example of how a commissioner of this agency can stake out more personally involved territory that might impact you, current Commissioner John King (running for reelection) put a spotlight on Allstate in August when they raised auto insurance rates 25% in Georgia.
State School Superintendent
The state school superintendent is the top education official in Georgia, and as such can be a heavily influential figure on educational matters that, obviously, sometimes become very politically consequential.
The basics of the job are directing the Department of Education and heading the state Board of Education. The department has everything from maintaining state educational standards and practices to reporting educational data to regulating homeschooling to school safety and technology under its umbrella.
Safety, teacher evaluation, the role of charter schools and educational curricula on topics such as U.S. history, race and gender are all areas that have become more contentious in American education in recent years, and an elected superintendent could decide to very actively (or delicately) approach these subjects.
The superintendent ultimately has more influence in the more practical matter of shaping the Department of Education - with current Superintendent Richard Woods (running for reelection) touting his record in the department hiring its "first-ever employees dedicated to supporting the fine arts and military students" and the establishments of the Office of Whole Child Supports, Office of School Safety and Climate, and Office of Rural Education under his watch.
Commissioner of Labor
We're finally back where we started at the top of this article.
The big one here, obviously, is unemployment. The Department of Labor takes unemployment insurance claims and distributes unemployment payments.
That doesn't necessarily involve the commissioner directly, but the commissioner's views can come into play. Mark Butler, who isn't running for reelection, for example told 11Alive in the summer of 2021 when the state was preparing to cut off the extra $300 a month in federal money to employment, that he supported the move because he believed it would incentivize people to get back to work.
"We've seen record numbers of jobs being advertised across the state. We're seeing a lot of jobs maybe that used to pay less than $10 an hour, push up to $14, $15, $16 an hour; though, we're still not seeing those jobs being filled," he said at that time.
The decision was ultimately made by Gov. Brian Kemp, but Butler was consulted on it and his voice played a role.
A commissioner could also conceivably investigate and sanction unemployment fraud in a way that is more aggressive toward or favors either employers or workers. They could also potentially use the role to emphasize ease of business or worker empowerment.
Butler, for his part, emphasizes his creation of the Business Services Unit, which "helps businesses streamline the hiring process by creating job descriptions and recruiting job seekers," as well as his spearheading the GeorgiaBEST program, which targets high school students to make them "work ready."
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