A demographic shift in the making for most of this decade has finally come to pass in District 6.
Black registered voters now comprise the majority in the district at nearly 48 percent, according to the latest Richmond County Board of Elections statistics. The total percentage of white registered voters in the district, which has been dropping since 2002, is now about 47 percent.
That is down from its high of 62 percent seven years ago. During that span, the proportion of black registered voters increased 14 percentage points, while the number of white voters dropped by nearly the same rate.
What role this change plays in the racial makeup of the evenly split Augusta Commission and Richmond County school board likely depends on whether the trend continues.
Given past voting patterns, the shift probably isn't big enough to affect next year's election for the District 6 seats now held by Commissioner Joe Jackson and school board member Jack Padgett Jr., both of whom are white. Experts on demographics note that a voting district usually must be at least 55 percent black to favor a candidate in that ethnic group -- if ballots are cast along racial lines -- because black voter turnout tends to be lower.
The district won't reach that percentage until about 2013, based on its average rate change of 2 percentage points each year since 2002.
But whether the district will be allowed to continue on a course that might eventually shift the balance of power on the school board and commission, each now with five black and five white members, is uncertain.
The county will be up for reapportionment after the 2010 census. Last time, a committee charged with redrawing districts made sure that balance remained unchanged.
Commissioner Don Grantham would like the next committee to continue the structure.
"Personally I think that this is important because that was one of the main issues when consolidation was voted on and put into place, that equal representation was one of the key factors," said Mr. Grantham, whose at-large super district includes District 6. "If that is what we originally set out to do, we should keep that same feeling of thought. I realize that we can't always keep everything balanced or the way we would like for it to be, but at least a conscientious effort should be made to give equal representation within the makeup of our government."
Such an effort was made after the 2000 census, when District 6 had made its first changeover from majority white to one that had more black registered voters. The redistricting committee -- composed of commission, school board and legislative delegation members -- restored the district to one that was majority white.
Much of the growth between the 1990 and 2000 had taken place in south Augusta, as many inner city residents relocated there. That meant several districts were either underpopulated -- districts 1, 2 and 5 -- or overpopulated -- south Richmond County districts 6 and 8 in particular. To get the districts more in line with what was considered an ideal size of about 25,000 people each, boundary lines were redrawn in 2001.
Redrawing the lines was tricky -- population could only be shifted from neighboring districts in a contiguous manner. Population in heavily white District 8 was shifted north into District 6, which made that district even more overpopulated. From there, population from District 6 was shifted into districts 4 and 2, and so on.
When the final map was agreed upon at the end of 2001 and received U.S. Justice Department approval, white registered voters in District 6 were again the majority. The racial majorities in the remaining districts either strengthened or were little changed.
When the districts are redrawn in 2011, Commissioner Betty Beard said she hopes there won't be any gerrymandering just to prevent District 6 from taking its natural course. With the county's population being majority black since 2000 -- it's now 52 percent compared to 44 percent white -- there shouldn't be any maneuvering to impede reality, she said.
"I think the city is just going to have to take its course," said Mrs. Beard, who represents District 1. "In my opinion, that is just what we will have to abide by ... the makeup of the community."
Even so, that won't guarantee that a black candidate will be elected, said local political analyst Ralph Walker. In the end, it will likely depend on the candidate, regardless of color.
"We're starting to get a little bit away from the total racial divide," Dr. Walker said. "It's not absolute that a black has to run from a black district or a white has to run for a white district."
Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Registered voters by district:
a-Super District 9 (at-large, made up of districts 1, 2, 4, 5); b-Super District 10 (at-large, made up of districts 3, 6, 7, 8)
Registered voters, by race, in District 6 since consolidation:
Source: Richmond County Board of Elections