U.S. District Judge Randal Hall said it will take him only a few days to draft an alternate voting map for Augusta-Richmond County, but he expects to postpone candidate qualifying for five Augusta Commission and five Richmond County school board posts from next week to August.
Hall, presiding over a first hearing Wednesday in the federal lawsuit filed to stop local commission and school board elections from being held under a decade-old district plan, said he’ll soon file an order moving the qualifying dates to August unless the U.S. Department of Justice pre-clears a new Georgia law moving the election dates from November to July by the start of qualifying May 23.
In the next 10 days, Hall said he’ll travel to Atlanta to meet with a technical advisor who will assist him in crafting a new district plan based on the “minimum change doctrine,” in which he adjusts existing lines only to the extent they meet statistical, Voting Rights Act and population requirements.
“The court does not intend to adopt 3R,” Hall said of the plan developed by a local ad-hoc committee, approved for use by Richmond County Board of Education but not the Augusta Commission, and which plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek to be implemented. Hall said his plan could “resemble” 3R.
Based on population shifts shown in 2010 U.S. Census data, Plan 3R created six majority-black districts and four majority-white districts, with a higher percentage of black residents in District 6 than previously existed.
Hall said the map he creates will be an interim, remedial map for use in this year’s elections, as Augusta legislators could easily return to the issue when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Augusta’s state senators split along party lines this spring and could not win passage of 3R or any other plan, leaving the issue in the hands of the court. However, unlike the plans adopted by cities and states, the map drawn by Hall unless challenged will not be reviewed by the Department of Justice.
Several members of the local committee, including its chair, Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, along with several candidates for the local offices whose district lines are in question and pastors who are plaintiffs in the suit, attended the hearing at the Federal Justice Center in Augusta.
After the hearing, Mason said the lack of Justice Department review of the map “takes away a layer of security.”
School board president Alex Howard said Hall’s role took “politics” out of the process that until now has been present. Commissioner Joe Jackson, who opposed 3R, said he hoped Hall “is going to listen to both sides and make the best judgment.”
Augusta NAACP President Charles J. Smith copied The Augusta Chronicle on an e-mail he sent to NAACP officials after the hearing, which reviewed the morning’s events, calling them “positive and timely” but said the branch objected to the change in election dates from November to July, which will go into effect in 2013 if pre-cleared.
The date changes do not affect qualifying set for May 23, 24 and 25 in other local races including Richmond County Marshal and state court judge.
Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey said voters will be notified of changes in their voting district, including changes in congressional, state house and state senate lines, as they are approved by the Justice Department.