Opinion opens door to July mayor, commission elections

Next year’s elections for Augusta mayor and five commissioners could happen in July or sooner, according to a new opinion from a deputy Georgia attorney general.

State Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynes­boro, said he asked for the opinion to clarify the question “on many people’s minds” after a June U.S. Su­preme Court ruling invalidated the section of the Voting Rights Act that required most South­ern states to obtain Department of Justice preclearance for voting changes.

The department had objected last year to Rep. Barbara Sims’ effort to bring nonpartisan November elections for Augusta mayor and commissioners in line with earlier state changes that moved all nonpartisan races to July. Under the consolidation charter, and according to opinions issued by the city law office and a deputy attorney general, Augusta is a city for election purposes, not a county, and exempt from the change.

With the Supreme Court ruling, the Justice Department’s objection no longer applies, Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn said in the Sept. 23 opinion letter to Stone, obtained Friday by The Augusta Chron­icle.

“My advice to you is that it appears that the consolidated government election date provision may now be implemented and enforced,” Dunn wrote.

In a normal year, that means holding the nonpartisan races on the third Tues­day in July, much sooner than anticipated for the four candidates so far who have declared they will run for mayor: state Sen.
Hardie Davis, Helen Blocker Adams, Commissioner Al­vin Mason and Charles Cum­mings.

Davis, who hadn’t seen the opinion, called the potential move “very problematic,” particularly in light of a pending change the Legislature is expected to consider in Jan­uary: Bringing the date of the general primary and nonpartisan races in line with federal elections to be held May 20.

“We could be on the verge of the earliest primary and the earliest nonpartisan elections in the history of our city,” he said.

Stone said earlier elections could be beneficial to the winners, who would have more time to orient themselves before taking a seat. A shorter period between qualifying dates and elections, too, “encourages people to get involved in public service,” while November elections have a greater potential for runoff as more people are likely to run, he said.

Dunn’s opinion cautioned that litigation or even Justice De­part­­ment intervention was possible should the change be enforced because there is no settled case law on the subject.

Richmond County Board of Elec­tions Executive Di­rec­tor Lynn Bailey said the last word she had on local election dates was the Jus­tice Department’s 2012 objection. She expects to learn more, including the potential move to May, in the coming months.

“Those are all possible scenarios, so we wait,” Bailey said.

THE BACK STORY

JULY ELECTIONS

BACKGROUND: A bill that changed the dates of most nonpartisan county elections and those of consolidated governments from November to July became Georgia law in 2011. 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. Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, proposed a bill that sought to consider all consolidated state governments as counties required to hold July elections.

 

DEVELOPMENTS:

• In December, the U.S. Justice Department rejected Sims’ measure as a veiled effort to dilute minority voting strength in the city.

• In June, a divided Supreme Court voided part of the Voting Rights Act, giving new hope to the Republican-led effort to move Augusta’s elections to July.

• In a Sept. 23 letter, Dunn told state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, that the “consolidated government election date provision” may be enforced.

– From staff reports

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