OEDEL: NPR’s Macon massacre

February 16, 2014 

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court released Georgia and several other states from presumptive federal “preclearance” of voting adjustments. While ruling that the preclearance presumption was unconstitutionally based on outdated, pre-1973 evidence of racial unfairness, the court acknowledged Georgia for making big gains in minority voting power since 1972. Georgia’s blacks now register in higher proportions than whites.

So when Macon elections made national news Feb. 6 on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” you might have expected something vaguely positive. Wrong.

NPR didn’t report that Macon-Bibb County residents, led by black and white politicians of both parties, in 2012 voted decisively in both the city and county to consolidate their two overlapping governments. After about a century of attempts, Macon-Bibb consolidated in January.

Macon-Bibb’s new mayor, Robert Reichert, was elected in an October 2013 runoff. It was a standalone, non-election-year contest, yet 51 percent turned out, exceeding Georgia’s 40 percent turnout in its November 2010 general election.

Reichert’s black runoff opponent, another former mayor, C. Jack Ellis, said publicly that he hoped for runoff turnout of 50 percent or more. Ellis got his turnout wish, but that didn’t rescue him from a predictable loss. In citywide head-to-head matchups with Reichert in 2012 before the court’s decision and Macon-Bibb consolidation, Ellis had already lost to Reichert twice. Ellis then lost 2013’s runoff. He garnered just 37 percent of the vote.

NPR also missed reporting that the new Macon-Bibb commission districts were crafted to reflect the 52 percent black racial balance in the county. After the first two rounds of voting, Macon-Bibb had four black and four white commissioners.

The ninth and final seat was in a 60-percent-plus black district, though the seat went to a white candidate, Larry Schlesinger. Schlesinger earned it by winning three head-to-head elections against his black opponent, Henry Ficklin: the September kickoff, an October runoff and a third court-ordered January election after Ficklin challenged his second loss in an expensive lawsuit because of an innocent line-drawing error.

Two NPR listeners outside of Georgia asked me Feb. 6 why NPR charged that Macon made an outrageous U-turn to pursue unlawful racist electoral tactics. Surprised, I looked into NPR’s story.

I learned that NPR’s characterization of Macon elections as being controlled under the radar by racist whites was constructed out of a pastiche of slightly misstated facts and law, unencumbered by explicit expert local analysis. It was the work of Adam Ragusea with Macon’s local NPR affiliate. Supporting his NPR piece, Ragusea quoted two distant law professors who told me later they knew little or nothing firsthand about Macon politics except what Ragusea told them.

National interest in Ragusea’s story was piqued by the possibility that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision may leave former preclearance areas like Georgia and Macon practically free to race-discriminate in voting changes. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act remains a key remedy for voting procedure changes with discriminatory racial effects. However, if places like Macon can get away with racial discrimination because suing is too expensive for aggrieved locals, then congressional action may be warranted, like the proposed Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.

In suggesting that the court has left Macon’s blacks “on their own” without legal recourse against white manipulation of local elections, Ragusea’s report was inaccurate. True, mounting a Section 2 lawsuit can be daunting, but both prominent black losers in Macon’s latest elections have shown they can and will sue when aggrieved. Indeed, Ficklin did sue this time, but on other grounds.

In my opinion, a Section 2 lawsuit against Macon-Bibb’s switch to nonpartisan elections would probably fail. Macon’s situation was different from Augusta’s racially electric switch to July elections. In Macon, by contrast, summer elections have traditionally been critical for local offices. Moreover, neither low voter turnout nor disparate results materialized after bringing Macon-Bibb into statewide conformity with the nonpartisan local election format.

Ellis and Ficklin lost majority-black voting districts, but they lost fair and square. Macon-Bibb’s commission will be roughly racially balanced. There’s plenty to report about Macon nationally without conjuring up imaginary, flawed, never-filed lawsuits.

David Oedel is a law professor at Mercer University. He recently provided legal counsel on other matters to Bibb County’s Democratic Party.

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