If history is any judge, moving Augusta’s commission elections from November to July would result in fewer voters – and fewer Democrats – deciding who runs the city government.
Augusta’s Democratic leaders say that statistical reality is the real reason Republicans are eager to move commission elections to July.
“It’s a very cynical approach by Barbara Sims,” said Richmond County Democratic Party Chairman Lowell Greenbaum, referring to House Bill 776, which is sponsored by the Republican state senator. “She knows better and we know better.”
Sims’ bill was introduced to close a loophole that allowed Augusta to slip past another piece of legislation which moved all nonpartisan elections off the November ballot. Passed last year, House Bill 158 moved elections for judicial offices, local school boards and consolidated governments to the date of the Georgia General Primary, July 31. Augusta officials, however, contended the way Augusta’s charter was written made it immune to the law and sought an attorney general opinion on the issue in December.
Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn agreed, issuing an opinion that an exception within Georgia laws permitted Augusta’s charter to set city election dates. The charter sets elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Sims’ bill would nullify that opinion by ensuring that Augusta’s elections are moved to July. She says her bill, which won approval in the House last week, was only an attempt to put Augusta in alignment with the other consolidated governments.
Sims says she has caught a lot of flak from her Democratic colleagues who have accused her of maneuvering to diminish minority voting strength in Augusta.
“This is not an attempt to keep anybody from voting,” Sims said. “To me, I don’t understand that logic.”
Voting statistics, however, indicate having elections in July would be an advantage to Republican-leaning candidates, even though the commission races are officially nonpartisan.
An examination of local voting statistics shows the number of voters in November general elections is on average three times greater than the turnout for July primaries. Also, the proportion of black voters diminishes greatly in such primary elections.
This would favor Republican-backed candidates because party affiliations tend to fall along racial lines in Augusta, Greenbaum said.
On average, 70 percent to 75 percent of voters who turn out for a Democratic primary are black, Board of Elections Director Lynn Bailey said. Conversely, statistics show that about 95 percent of voters in Republican primaries are white.
Since 2000, the average voter turnout in July general primaries is split evenly between white and black voters, even though the number of black registered voters has continued to grow each year.
Charles Bullock III, a professor of political science at the University Of Georgia, said these trends would tend to favor Republican candidates, although in certain elections statistics can swing the other way. It depends on who is on the ballot and what the issues are, he said.
“People turn out to vote if they think their vote is going to matter,” Bullock said.
Voters turned out in huge numbers in 2008 to vote for President Obama, and Democrats are expecting another big turnout this November, which makes it seem like Republicans are looking to take advantage of voting statistics by changing election law, Greenbaum said.
“We all know that the Republicans always vote in bigger numbers than Democrats,” Greenbaum said. “That’s our problem.”
But it seems counterintuitive to purposely alter a law in a way that would result in lower voter participation, especially for picking Augusta commissioners, Greenbaum said.
“Why should you do it with the minimal vote?” he said.
State Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, said the bill, along with another that altered the legislative maps in Georgia by adding Republican Sen. Bill Jackson to the Augusta legislative delegation, is a Republican power grab.
“All of these actions are the kind of divisive politics we don’t need,” said Davis, pointing out that neither bill had the support of the Augusta legislative delegation or the commission.
Davis said that if Sims’ bill passes the Senate and becomes law, it could backfire and “energize Democrats” to turn out at the polls.
Sims said she has not been involved in any political maneuvering or an attempt to diminish black voting power in Augusta.
“If that was the plan, they would have got someone more powerful than me to do it,” she said.
Whatever the intention, moving commission elections to July could have real impacts – including more Republican influence in Richmond County, Greenbaum said.
That is why the Democratic Party will introduce a question on the July ballot asking voters whether they would want to change the commission elections to partisan races, he said.
“Republicans have always tried to diminish the number of voters,” he said. “We’re very angry about this, and we hope to straighten it out down the line.”