Election day for Augusta’s next mayor and half the Augusta Commission might be here sooner than expected.
Tuesday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court gives new hope to a Republican-led effort to move local nonpartisan races to July – a year from now.
“There are people working on it right now,” said Republican strategist Dave Barbee, a former Richmond County GOP chairman.
A bill that changed the dates of most nonpartisan county elections and those of consolidated governments from November to July was signed into law in 2011, but Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and Deputy Georgia Attorney General Dennis Dunn held that under Augusta’s charter, the government operates as a municipality for election purposes.
A “clean-up” bill supported by Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, sought to consider all consolidated Georgia governments as counties required to hold elections in July. It was roundly rejected in December by the Justice Department as a veiled effort to dilute minority strength.
On Tuesday, a divided Supreme Court voided the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states, including Georgia, to submit all voting changes to the Justice Department.
Since 2006, the Justice Department has objected to only six changes filed by Georgia jurisdictions – local activities in Randolph, Lowndes, Greene and Long counties; the 2009 statewide voter verification program; and last year’s effort to include Augusta-Richmond among governments subject to July elections.
The Supreme Court decision likely lightens the Richmond County Board of Elections’ burden of filing preclearance notices for even the most innocuous activity, such as a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales.
But it also creates uncertainty about the legality of changes rejected by the department since the act’s last extension, such as Sims’ clean-up bill.
“The Legislature passed it and the governor signed it,” former Augusta Mayor Bob Young said. “I don’t agree with the Legislature setting the dates, but it seems to me that that’s the law.”
The state’s top elections official, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said in a statement that he is “assessing the overall impact” of the decision on preclearance denials.
“We’re all still waiting for the dust to settle and see what happens,” said Board of Elections Executive Director Lynn Bailey. “Unless we hear to the contrary, we adhere to the latest ruling,” the local and state opinions issued in 2011, she said.
Commission seats come open next year in districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10. Corey Johnson in District 2, Alvin Mason in District 4 and Joe Jackson in District 6 are term-limited, as is Mayor Deke Copenhaver, whose second full term ends next year.
Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, will be outnumbered by two Republican senators – Jesse Stone, of Waynesboro, and Bill Jackson, of Appling – on the local Senate delegation when the Legislature convenes next year. Republican-led redistricting drew Jackson’s district into Richmond County.
Davis, rumored to be seeking the Augusta mayor’s post, wouldn’t reveal his decision Friday. Mason and Helen Blocker-Adams have announced they will run, and former Super C’s Dance Hall owner Charles Cummings registered a mayoral campaign earlier this year.
Barbee said that despite the outcry by Democrats about voting changes, holding Augusta elections next July would give the candidates more exposure. The solution to keeping the city’s elections in November is to make them partisan, he said.
Sims wouldn’t say whether she plans to address the matter in the Legislature.
“We’re the only ones that are not doing it,” she said, noting that the newly consolidated Macon-Bibb County was cleared to hold elections in September, despite protests by Democrats.