County forced to use old district lines for elections unless courts intervene

The Legislature’s decision Thurs­day not to approve a voting district plan for the Augusta Com­mis­sion and the Richmond County Board of Education leaves the county set to elect 10 officials this year under 10-year-old districts, some of which now vary in size by more than 4,000 residents.

The plan is to hold candidate qualifying, which begins May 23, based on the old districts unless the courts intervene, said Board of Elec­tions Executive Director Lynn Bai­ley. That means, for example, candidates seeking the District 1 post will be selected by a district of 20,904 residents, while those seeking the District 3 commission post will canvass a district of 29,909.

Augusta legislators did not agree to approve the last plan up for consideration on the final day of the legislative session Thursday. The plan was presented as a compromise by Waynesboro Sen. Jesse Stone that, like its predecessor “3R” devised by a local committee, included six majority-black districts. Stone, a Republican, said he presented the plan even after he and Democratic Sen. Hardie Davis pulled all plans out of consideration a week earlier because Augusta officials said they did not want the matter decided in federal court.

Augusta Democratic legislators, however, wanted a previous plan that had six majority-black districts and a higher percentage of blacks in south Augusta’s District 6, increasing the likelihood a black candidate might defeat school board member Jack Padgett, who is up for reelection in 2014. District 6 Commmissioner Joe Jackson, who is white, is term-limited.

School board attorney Pete Fletcher said he expects the board to discuss filing a federal lawsuit at its next meeting to get a federal judge, likely one from the Southern District of Georgia.

Holding elections under existing district lines probably violates the federal Civil Rights Act, Fletcher said.

“To me, it’s a matter of serving the community and getting things straight,” he said. “The existing districts do not meet the one man, one vote designation.”

Because of population shifts since the 2000 census, the existing districts are 600 to 4,840 people off their ideal average size of 25,069, though six are majority black and four are majority white. Augusta-Richmond was 55.8 percent black in the 2010 census.

Padgett went to Atlanta on Monday to testify before the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, as did Commissioner Al Mason, who led the local ad hoc committee that approved the district map preferred but tabled by Augusta Democrats.

Padgett said he thought legislators were weary late Thursday when they ceased negotiating and left the matter to the courts.

“My personal thinking is the courts will draw a fairer bill than 3R,” which shifted more than 30,000 residents into different districts, Padgett said.

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