“There really isn’t a decision to be made one way or the other; it’s what the law is,” said Chip Barbee, a Republican appointee on Richmond County Board of Elections. “When the law is rewritten, you just apply it in the same way.”
Georgia Senate Bill 92 is crystal clear on the matter, Barbee said. It moved the dates of local nonpartisan elections in consolidated governments – such as Augusta-Richmond County – to the date of the state’s general partisan primary, scheduled for next July.
Summertime city elections will be a change for Augusta voters, who have elected a mayor and commissioners in November since consolidation.
But the five-member board – which closed a meeting to the public last week to discuss the dates, in apparent violation of the Georgia Open Records Act – isn’t quite ready to acknowledge when it intends to conduct the elections, or even the season in which they’ll be held.
Asked if he will uphold the state law, which is among the sworn duties of an elections board member, Democratic appointee L.C. Myles wouldn’t get specific.
“Going through speculations isn’t going to do anybody any good,” Myles said. “I made an oath to uphold the law … At the time of the election, we don’t know what the law will be.”
There are other looming factors – including the possibility the Republican-led Georgia General Assembly will move the dates even earlier in the year to coincide with federal races, or potential federal intervention, but neither has happened.
Local Democrats not on the elections board said the question was open. Lowell Greenbaum, the head of the Richmond County Democratic Party, said the elections board was actually awaiting a decision by state officials.
He said the party opposes the earlier dates.
“The problem with July is, we feel very strongly, is minority vote suppression,” Greenbaum said.
That’s the same opinion as the U.S. Department of Justice, which objected to Senate Bill 92 last year, but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled part of the Voting Rights Act, removing the Justice preclearance requirement that led to the objection.
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, one of four officially declared candidates for mayor, said that while the elections board hasn’t announced the dates, he is campaigning as if the election will be in April, when absentee ballots are available for the federal primary.
“Whenever the election date is decided, those who want to participate need to do so,” Mason said. “From that perspective, everyone has the same opportunity.”
Without the preclearance requirement, the only way to alter the dates is through a legislative act or litigation. Actual “litigation” was the board’s excuse for closing its Oct. 31 meeting to the public.
Republican board member Sherry Barnes referred a request for comment about the dates to Sanford Loyd, the nonpartisan board chairman.
Loyd spoke around the issue but would not acknowledge the date change.
“We’re going to do what we always do,” Loyd said. “Our charge is to hold the elections on the dates somebody has set.”
Asked if the board was inclined to acknowledge to voters it is preparing for an upcoming shift in the dates, Loyd said no.
“That’s not something we go around saying any other time,” he said.