While a recent change in state law moved Richmond County’s 2014 nonpartisan elections from the November ballot to the summer primaries, school board races escaped the change because of a quirk in the district’s charter.
The passage of a 2012 Republican-backed bill pushed all local races such as the school board, mayoral and commission to the date of the state primaries in July, reportedly to alleviate overcrowding on the general election ballot.
Although the Richmond County Board of Education is nonpartisan, board attorney Pete Fletcher said board members had the option to keep their race in November because the school system’s charter predates the 1877 Georgia Constitution.
Richmond County is one of only about four school districts in the state to have such an old charter, giving them the authority to keep their races in November, according to Angela Palm, Georgia School Boards Association director of policy and legislative services. Out of 180 districts, 104 are nonpartisan and were faced with moving elections from the fall to the summer, Palm said.
“Very few had the option of not following the state law,” she said.
Richmond County Board of Education members voted unanimously Dec. 3 to keep their races in November, although they could have voluntarily moved to the summer.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said board President Venus Cain.
However there is still wide disagreement on how moving local races to the summer will affect voter turnout and minority participation.
According to Board of Elections data, the November 2012 general election had a 73 percent turnout in Augusta compared to the 35 percent for the July general primaries.
The U.S. Department of Justice originally objected to the change in election dates. But after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Voting Rights Act section that required Justice preclearance this summer, it allowed Augusta to follow the new law change.
“This is a ploy to keep the number of people voting down,” said Lowell Greenbaum, the chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party. “Then the wrong people get elected.”
Greenbaum said voter participation is crucial because of the impact local races have on a community. He said the board of education’s decision to keep its races in November will only help the democratic process.
Dave Barbee, Richmond County Republican Committee member, however, said he fears the school board races will be buried under the governor, U.S. senate and attorney general races on the ballot in November.
With these more high-profile statewide races on the ballot, Barbee said the media and public will pay less attention the school board contests.
“A nonpartisan election gets pushed to the bottom of the ballot, even after the questions,” Barbee said. “You’ll probably wind up with the same people on the (school) board that have been there for years, because it gets lost in the maze.”
Even if voters now know which races they’ll see in the summer, they still don’t know exactly when they’ll go to the polls.
The federal primaries are scheduled for May 20, and the legislature will decide early next year whether the July 15 state primaries will be moved to join the federal races – which would push the qualifying period for all races from the end of April to March.
“There are still a lot of moving parts,” said Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey.