In a city with a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Department of Justice, Augusta officials viewed the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision with some concern, but little surprise.
As recently as last year, Justice Department preclearance interrupted a state-mandated shift in local nonpartisan elections from November to July. Augusta commissioners and its mayor are nonpartisan posts.
A federal judge redrew Augusta commission and Richmond County school board lines last year after local and state politicians would not compromise on a district plan.
Twenty-five years ago, the Justice Department forced the rescheduling of a July 1988 referendum on city-county consolidation to the following November, then required the government to scrap the successful November consolidation referendum as an unfair effort to dilute black political power.
The city, meanwhile, has no pending preclearance notices before Justice and no elections planned this year outside local races in Hephzibah and Blythe, Richmond County Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey said.
“As things stood yesterday, any time we made any change – whether relocation of a polling place, combining two precincts together – up until yesterday we had to go to the Department of Justice and we had to ask for preclearance,” she said. “If we no longer have to file preclearance notices … it’s a tremendous change in the way we do business.”
Bailey said voters should expect no changes in their routine.
“The Board of Elections will continue to adhere to state and federal laws and to apply those laws fairly,” she said.
Sammie Sias, a retired Army Sergeant who was a plaintiff in last year’s local redistricting lawsuit, said the court decision was a reminder that citizens “have to get up and handle our own business.”
He said Southern states “have found a way to get around” preclearance requirements already. “They’ve been able to shift it around and call it ‘party’ instead of race.”
Augusta businessman and former city councilman A.K. Hasan, who led the 1988 effort to complain to the Justice Department about consolidation, was optimistic that the ruling did not eliminate other avenues for relief, while it removes the mandatory preclearance requirement.
“The Justice Department is not an automatic advocate for blocs of citizens who have traditionally been mistreated,” he said. “The most important thing is the door is not closed. You just have to access it differently.”
Paine College history professor Andre Key noted that even Shelby County, Ala., a party in the case the Supreme Court overruled, was found in violation of the Voting Rights Act as recently as 2008, making ‘this function of the Voting Rights Act still relevant to this day.”
Key expected little or no action by Congress to set new guidelines for which states are subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The decision comes as little surprise in Chief Justice John Roberts’ court, he said. “They really are placing these issues back within the states and removing federal authority from these issues where federal authority was needed to ensure these types of abuses don’t occur. The Roberts court in many ways has shifted the balance of power regarding voting rights or affirmative action back toward both the state and local authorities.”
Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, spoke of the continued need for a “checkpoint” that just last year spared Augusta the state-mandated shift in nonpartisan election dates.
“That’s a perfect example of why we needed it,” Howard said. “That bill went through against the wishes of the people that’s going to be impacted the most. The only salvation we had to keep it where the people and the wishes of Richmond County could be heard was the Justice Department.”
North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones said preclearance requirements were sometimes tedious and seemed unnecessary, even unfair, such as the city’s requirement to obtain preclearance for a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales.
“That was kind of burdensome when it was obvious there was nothing race-related about it,” Jones said. “I think there’s also in the South been a historical feeling that, ‘Well, gee if you’re going to put these rules on us, then why don’t you put these rules on every state?’ I have never heard anyone say that racism was confined to the historically Southern states and it certainly isn’t.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy recalled the Voting Rights Act opening up opportunities for blacks to become leaders as cities and counties abandoned at-large voting districts.
“I’m not really shocked with the decision, but I’m a little disappointed,” Fennoy said, citing last year’s addition of a second Republican state representative to the Augusta delegation as evidence of governing by the few.
The addition of the seat, held by Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, was pre-cleared by Justice and goes into effect next year. It will give two Republican senators “that represent less than 20 percent of the population” control over local legislative affairs in Augusta-Richmond County.
“For them to control legislation that affects Richmond County is not fair because they’re not representative of the county,” he said.
Fennoy said he expected those in power to take immediate advantage of not having to pre-clear changes with Justice.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “It’s all about voter suppression.”
Charles Smith, the president of the Augusta NAACP branch, said the decision “insults the legacy of those like Medgar Evers, who sacrificed their time and their lives for the right to vote” and said the NAACP demands Congress take action to increase the Voting Rights Act’s protections.