News Analysis: Macon-Bibb’s on again, off again election
VRA ruling gives election a green light, but not so fast
Following the late-June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional — and essentially gutted Section 5, the provision of the VRA which required certain states and jurisdictions to pre-clear their elections changes through the Department of Justice — many states and localities sprung into action to implement long-stalled election changes.
In the combined Macon-Bibb government in Georgia, the ruling has brought a mixed bag of issues.
About a year ago, voters in both city of Macon and Bibb County approved a referendum to consolidate the governments of the county and city.
The Georgia General Assembly had approved the move earlier in 2012. There were four previous attempts to consolidate the governments, but with more than 55 percent of the city and county voters approving the consolidation, the fifth time was the charm.
An election for voters to choose the first-ever nonpartisan consolidated government for Macon-Bibb was set for Tuesday, July 16, 2013 and plans for the election were submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for preclearance.
On May 24, less than two months before the scheduled election and with the absentee ballots about ready to go out, the DOJ sent officials in Macon-Bibb a letter requesting more information about the changes and ultimately throwing the scheduled election into chaos.
According to The Telegraph, the letter said, in part:
“Concerns have been raised that these changes will result in a retrogression in the ability of minority voters to participate in the electoral process and elect candidates of their choice and were undertaken by the local delegation despite concerns expressed by members of the affected elected bodies, including comments that the changes were proposed, at least in part, for racial reasons.” T. Christian Herren Jr., chief of the voting section signed the letter.
Following the letter from the Dept. of Justice, Elections Supervisor Jeanetta Watson began canceling preparations for the election and the county board of elections unanimously voted to postpone the election indefinitely.
A week after DOJ’s original opinion was due, Bibb County Attorney Virgil Adams reached out to the department demanding an immediate decision on the county’s preclearance request or the county would be forced to go to court.
In addition to putting the elections office and all the plans it had made on hold, the postponement of the election also impacted the candidates in the race who were left hanging as to when to file important campaign finance reports.
Immediately following the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Shelby v. Holder, lawmakers in Bibb were of differing opinions on the impact the ruling would have on the election in question.
But, on the advice of the county attorney, the board of elections voted two days later to schedule the election for September 17. Initially county commissioners wanted the election held in November, but the BOE voted against that.
On the same day the elections board voted to set the election on September 17, one of the candidates in the election filed suit demanding that the court take over the election process.
Despite the selection of Sept. 17 as the date for the election, Mallory Jones III, who filed the suit against the county, refused to pull his lawsuit citing the numerous outstanding issues including early voting and re-qualifying candidates.
“The lawsuit is designed to bring finality,” Lee Parks, attorney for the plaintiff told The Telegraph. “The results (of the election) could be challenged if it’s decided the election was held on an illegal date. We want finality. That’s the whole point.”
In an attempt to appease the Jones and put an end to the lawsuit, the board of elections voted to tweak the election yet again this week. While the election date would remain the 17th, the qualifying dates would shift to July 22-24 instead of the previously announced August 5-7.
Then finally, on July 9, U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal signed a consent order setting the election date for September 17.