Board postpones Macon-Bibb County’s July elections

jgaines@macon.comMay 31, 2013 

The election of a mayor for all of Macon-Bibb County and nine new countywide commissioners, scheduled for July 16, is postponed indefinitely.

The Bibb County Board of Elections voted unanimously Friday morning to put off the election, due to a mandatory delay by the Department of Justice and uncertainty about a future ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When members convened at the board office on Pio Nono Avenue, they immediately went into closed session at the urging of County Attorney Virgil Adams. They emerged half an hour later, and member Steve Allen moved to postpone the election pending a Justice Department ruling, “at which time new election dates will be decided.”

Allen said he’d like to set a new date, but couldn’t because the situation is so uncertain. Board member Ronnie Miley agreed.

“We cannot go any further,” Miley said. “There’s so many variables.”

It’s possible the election will wind up being set in November, according to Rinda Wilson, the board of elections chairwoman. Allen said once a Justice Department ruling arrives, the board will probably meet the next day to set a new election date.

The postponement means new candidates could enter the race. Qualification will be reopened; those who have already qualified to run will have to fill out new paperwork, but not pay an additional fee, Allen said. Current candidates who wish to withdraw can get a refund.

State legislators set July 16 as the date of a nonpartisan election for the consolidated government that is to take office Jan. 1, 2014, replacing current city and county governments. But in response to local complaints, the Justice Department is reviewing how that decision was made, whether the date might affect black voter turnout, and whether the election should be nonpartisan.

Absentee ballots were supposed to be mailed out next week. People who requested absentee ballots won’t have to reapply, Wilson said. Their information will be held for whenever the election actually happens.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is responsible for giving “preclearance,” or permission, to changes in election law to make certain they don’t harm voting rights under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

If the current plan stands, elections for the Bibb County Board of Education would also become nonpartisan.

In 2012, voter turnout in the July partisan primary was less than half the level of the November general election, but the change in turnout was smaller for black voters than for white voters, according to county election records.

The Justice Department was expected to issue its decision by June 3, but on May 24 federal officials sent the county a letter asking further questions and pushing its deadline back 60 days -- effectively preventing the July 16 election.

A pending Supreme Court case gives more reason for leaving the date open, Wilson said.

The court has agreed to consider the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act section regarding preclearance. Many cities and states, especially in the South, are required to get federal permission for electoral changes due to decades-old history of racially motivated voter suppression. Congress has repeatedly extended the requirement, most recently in 2006, when it was extended for 25 years. Opponents claim such supervision is no longer needed. A ruling is expected in June.

Mayoral candidate C. Jack Ellis was one of the few people who came to watch Friday’s meeting in person. Afterward, he asked board members whether they will support establishing two more locations for early voting. Right now the board of elections office is the only location.

Miley said the board has previously backed setting up a second location, but creating and funding additional sites is up to the Bibb County Board of Commissioners, not the elections board.

Wilson said she’s willing to put a request to the county for two more early voting locations on the election board’s meeting agenda.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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