Divided state House OKs nonpartisan elections in Bibb

mlee@macon.comFebruary 12, 2013 

ATLANTA -- In a near party-line vote, the state House of Representatives decided by a roughly 2-to-1 margin Tuesday that key Macon-Bibb County officeholders should be stripped of Republican or Democrat party labels.

The House also decided that Bibb’s nonpartisan elections would be in July rather than November.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, called the set of bills that make the changes a “bait and switch.”

Vote tallies varied slightly among different offices that will be nonpartisan, but approval of a nonpartisan mayor and county commission passed 111-62.

In 2012, Bibb County and Macon voters approved a referendum to consolidate their governments. The new government’s charter specified that offices would be partisan, a key requirement to get Bibb’s Democrat legislators to sign on. The state Legislature must approve such changes to local government rules.

But less than a year later, after redistricting, Bibb County Republicans are firmly in charge of the county’s legislative delegation and pushed for local elections to be nonpartisan and held during July primaries.

The county’s other Democratic representative, state Rep. James Beverly of Macon, agreed with Randall that this year’s push for nonpartisan elections wasn’t what was sold to voters about the consolidation issue.

Some black voters and Democrats in Macon opposed the consolidation bill, fearing a dilution of black political power in overall Bibb County -- which has a smaller percentage of black residents than the city of Macon. They also encouraged Beverly not to support the consolidation effort, he said.

But the sophomore lawmaker was elected into a group of colleagues who had already been working on consolidation.

“When we decided that we were going to consolidate, I signed a bill that we hashed out over months,” Beverly said. He said he and Randall “put ourselves on the line to say, ‘You know, we may or may not agree with consolidation, but people have the right to vote for their destiny.’ ”

He blasted Republicans, saying they did not consult Democrats about the nonpartisan switch.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said his constituents “pleaded” with him to change from partisan to nonpartisan elections, and that many of them voted for consolidation last year in spite of the partisan provision in place at the time.

He asked for “consistency” so Macon-Bibb County would line up with a statewide norm of nonpartisan municipal elections.

Randall, however, suggested the bill was not about Peake’s constituents.

“Do we not want to be identified as a member of a certain party?” Randall asked. “I am a proud Democrat.”

Bibb is a “Democrat-performing” county, she pointed out.

State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said this year’s nonpartisan election bills ought to have been signed by Vladimir Putin because they are a Russian-style steamroll over voters.

The House’s Tuesday votes apply to the consolidated government mayor, county commission, Macon-Bibb County Water and Sewerage Authority, school board, coroner, probate judge, chief magistrate judge and judge of the Civil Court of Bibb County.

Those are all the offices that can be made nonpartisan. Other offices, such as the sheriff and Superior Court clerk, are partisan and cannot be changed for a single county.

But before party-free ballots can be printed for a July vote, the U.S. Department of Justice must give its approval. In Georgia, like most other states in the Deep South, the federal government must approve any change to voting laws to make sure that black voting power is not unfairly diluted.

Augusta-Richmond County made an unfair move when its legislators switched it from partisan to nonpartisan elections, the Department of Justice declared in December 2012. They argued that black turnout is low during primaries in Augusta-Richmond, so moving the ballot from November to July effectively diluted the black vote.

They threw out Augusta-Richmond’s GOP-authored plan.

Randall said she thinks the feds will look at Macon-Bibb in the same way.

The state Senate already passed the Macon-Bibb County nonpartisan measures, also roughly along party-line votes. Due to the House’s combining four bills on judicial offices into one, the Senate must formally agree to the new Senate Bill 26.

The other bills -- Senate Bills 25, 30 and 31 -- now go to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk before inspection by Washington.

All the bills were sponsored by state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, and co-signed by freshman state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. Bibb’s third senator, state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, opposed all of them.

Separately, a bill that formally abolishes Payne City is waiting on action in the state House. The Senate already has approved Senate Bill 28, with the support of both Lucas and Staton.

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