Tuesday morning’s 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to repeal part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act will affect the upcoming elections for the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government.
But late Tuesday, the question among local officials remained: What exactly will that impact be?
“Honestly, (some) of the pieces of the decision, I’m not completely sure about,” said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.
Other members of the state Legislature had widely varying interpretations of the ruling’s impact.
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State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he has been advised by legislative counsel that the decision clears the way for nonpartisan elections in Bibb.
Meanwhile, state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said he thinks nonpartisan elections are off the table for this year.
Bibb County Attorney Virgil Adams declined to discuss the ruling, except to say he’s still reviewing it.
“As to local implications, I can’t comment right now,” he said.
Bibb County elections initially were scheduled for July after the Republicans in the local legislative delegation pushed through changes to the new government’s charter to replace partisan elections with nonpartisan contests.
But under the Voting Rights Act’s Section 4, which was overturned Tuesday, the federal government used a formula based on decades-old data to determine which states need preclearance from the Justice Department for decisions about elections.
Without a new formula, which would have to be designed and approved by Congress, there’s nothing to determine which states would need the Justice Department’s preclearance, which is still in the law under Section 5.
State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, said in a news release that Tuesday’s ruling means decisions regarding local elections “will be left to the more than capable hands of local and state authorities.” He and Peake were the two members of the delegation who led the push for nonpartisan elections.
“(Tuesday’s) decision to overturn this unconstitutional section of the Voting Rights Act is a step in the right direction toward allowing states and local municipalities the ability to oversee and manage their own voting laws,” Staton said in the release.
Peake said the ruling clears the way for nonpartisan elections to choose the members of the new consolidated Macon-Bibb County government and that any decision the Justice Department would have made about the local election is now moot.
“There’s no need for pre-clearance,” Peake said. “It’s cleared. We can have nonpartisan elections and have them in July, like the rest of the state.”
However, Lucas disagreed. When the state Legislature approved the consolidated government bill, it did so with a July election date, he said. Because the election won’t be held in July, Lucas claims that invalidates the nonpartisan issue.
“The Justice Department did not pre-clear (nonpartisan elections),” he said. “I guess we’ll have elections in November, but we’ll have partisan (elections).”
The Justice Department was supposed to rule June 3 on whether Bibb County could have nonpartisan elections, but the department asked for an extension to make the decision.
Because of the delay, the Bibb County Board of Elections was forced to push back the July election date and will reopen qualifying for the mayoral and County Commission races for the new government. New qualifying dates have not yet been set.
Beverly said he wants to wait to see what the Justice Department tells the county. He said he’s a strong proponent of partisan elections, in part because Bibb County voters approved the consolidated government’s charter, which called for them.
“A handful of people (in the delegation) changed it (to nonpartisan) without a referendum, and that’s an issue for me,” Beverly said.
Beverly said he and others are prepared to challenge nonpartisan elections under the parts of the Voting Right Act that are still in effect. Peake said because this year’s Bibb political races are part of a “special election,” they can be held before November. He said he would challenge anyone who tries to stop the election.
Jeanetta Watson, Bibb’s elections supervisor, said Tuesday she wouldn’t comment on the ruling until she discusses it with Adams.
Mercer University law professor David Oedel said he expected the Supreme Court to make the ruling it did and that he agrees “it’s the right course to take.”
But Oedel said the nopartisan issue remains unclear. He noted that the four Supreme Court justices who dissented said preclearance is in dormancy until Congress approves a new formula.
Oedel said he expects the ruling will mean the Bibb elections will be nonpartisan.
But he said opponents of nonpartisan elections could file an injunction in federal court under the Voting Rights Act sections that remain in place.
Macon City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, David Lucas’ wife, was one of several high-profile Democratic officials to oppose nonpartisan elections and to ask the Justice Department to not grant preclearance for the county.
She said she’s “very, very disappointed” by the decision.
“It spells danger for the voting rights of all citizens,” she said. “The Republicans in our area are further discriminating against the black and Democratic voters, which has been shown by them pushing nonpartisan elections. I think it’s open season on black voters, Hispanic voters and all groups who have impediments on voting.”
Lucas said she is consulting with attorneys to see what can be done to block nonpartisan elections, and she urged residents to fight the change.
Because of the logistics involved in mounting an election, Peake said he knows that this year’s elections won’t be in July. But he’s unsure when they will happen. Tentatively, the county has indicated it would set the date for Nov. 5.
Peake said he wouldn’t fight that decision if the current County Commission agrees.
“Let’s have an election, now that we have things settled,” Peake said.
Information from The Associated Press and Georgia Public Broadcasting was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call (478) 744-4334.