Legal challenge raised over change in election dates for Augusta local races

A federal lawsuit has been filed against the city of Augusta because of the election date change for local offices.

The lawsuit, filed Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union, seeks an injunction against the city and a finding that the change in election dates violates the Voting Rights Act.

Early voting begins next week for the May 20 election for statewide primary races, and in Augusta for the mayor and commission districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 races.

Lynn Bailey, the director of the Board of Elections, said Monday afternoon that she had just been served with a copy of the lawsuit. The Board of Elections will need to study Georgia law to determine how to proceed if the court intervenes.

Bailey, who noted there are other races on the May 20 ballot, said that absentee ballots have been going out for three weeks.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Augusta residents Rep. Henry Howard, Rep. Earnest Smith, Rep. Gloria Frazier, Thomas Walker, Kenneth Martin, commission candidate Melvin Ivey, and Albert Robinson Jr.

Local, non-partisan elections had been held in November. In 2012, the law was amended for non-partisan local elections in consolidated municipalities. Local elections are to be treated as county elections, not city, and will be held at the time of the state primary election in even number years.

According to the lawsuit, the only local government affected by that change is Augusta.

The state primary election had been held in July. This year, the General Assembly moved the state primary election to May.

The lawsuit references the Department of Justice objection to the change in Augusta’s election date in December.

Registered voters are 50.9 percent black in Augusta. The election date change would have a retrogressive effect, the lawsuit contends, because black voters are 55.4 percent less likely than white voter to turn out in July.

Ivey, one of four candidates seeking the District 4 commission seat, said moving the mayor and commission elections this close to the scheduled May 20 date won’t be an issue for his campaign.

“It doesn’t bother me, because I want the people to pick the best candidate, and the more informed you are, the better decision you will make,” Ivey said.

Ivey said the community shouldn’t be surprised about the suit due to the amount of opposition on the date change. The U.S. Department of Justice rejected the date change during the preclearance process, but state officials later decided to move forward with it when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the section of the Voting Rights Act that required Justice Department preclearance.

“Basically, you don’t get as fair representation of the turnout during the primary as you would during a regular election,” Ivey said. “We believe that our city government should be elected by a majority, not the minority.”

Commissioner Alvin Mason, who is running for mayor, chafed at the news.

“I don’t know anything about it at this point, and at this late stage of the game, they need to leave that alone,” Mason said.

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