An Augusta legislator’s effort to move Augusta Commission elections from November to July was rejected by the U.S. Justice Department as a veiled effort to dilute minority voting strength in the city, but don’t expect the highly partisan issue to die an easy death.
In a Dec. 21 response to Georgia’s request to pre-clear the legislation, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez blasted the proposed change, saying Georgia failed to show a lack of discriminatory purpose and effect, as required by the Voting Rights Act.
He said the measure posed as one affecting all seven of Georgia’s consolidated city-county governments and named no individual jurisdiction. In actuality, he said, it rescheduled only Augusta elections for mayor and 10 commissioners from November to July, he said.
Looking at 2010 and 2012 Augusta elections, Perez said, July turnout was lower than November turnout among both blacks and whites, but the drop was worse for blacks. Therefore, moving the elections to July would have a “retrogressive effect” on minority voters’ ability to elect candidates of their choosing, he said.
Perez said the state failed to demonstrate that the change did not set out to discriminate, because the mayor and commission weren’t consulted before the measure’s passage and later adopted a resolution opposing it. Any purpose of cost savings or convenience had already been accomplished through a statewide shift of nonpartisan judicial and school board elections to July, Perez stated.
In proposing the change in February, state Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, called it a housekeeping measure to fit consolidated governments into the same legislation that moved the rest of nonpartisan local elections to July.
Sims’ bill, which passed in the House and was incorporated into Senate legislation sent to the Justice Department, triggered a firestorm among Augusta Democratic legislators.
Sen. Hardie Davis introduced a bill setting local elections in November, and Rep. Quincy Murphy moved for the House to reconsider. Both failed.
Ultimately, Augusta’s law department and Georgia Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn issued opinions asserting that Augusta, unlike the rest of Georgia’s consolidated governments, operates as a “municipality” for election purposes, according to its charter, and is exempt from the date change.
Sims defended her bill Friday and cited the heavy July Democratic primary turnout that helped Augusta-Richmond County elect its first black sheriff and probate judge and first black female solicitor.
“If you want to vote, you can vote. That was proven this summer,” she said. “It was not to keep Augusta-Richmond County from voting, but to follow the same path as other consolidated governments.”
Georgia Republican legislators don’t appear done with the issue. Sims said there is a “very good possibility” the issue will resurface when the General Assembly convenes.
Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, has pre-filed a bill that assigns consolidated governments to the category of “county elections, and not municipal elections.”
Davis asked why a legislator would push an issue already dismissed three times.
“I think you’ve got a case with the Justice Department ruling that, ‘Hey, you need to think twice before you do that,’ ” he said.
Augusta Democratic Rep. Earnest Smith said thast the proposed change never had the cost-saving effect its authors claimed and that it ultimately would cost the city more to hold commission and mayoral races and their likely runoffs in the summer.
“I think that everything is as it should be,” he said.
Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, commended the Justice Department’s decision but questioned why state government was getting involved in local elections.
“The problem we’ve run into in Atlanta is that we’re turning local legislation into general legislation,” he said. “That needs to be stopping, but sometimes the only place it can be stopped is the Justice Department.”