Bibb County school board elections delayed; qualifying will reopen in July

New voting district maps based on 2010 census data will be used for this summer’s Bibb County school board primary elections, which will be shifted from July 31 to Aug. 21, according to a federal court order issued Friday morning.

Macon-Bibb County Elections Supervisor Elaine Carr said voting cards received by Bibb County residents this week show incorrect information for voters whose school board districts have changed under the new maps. The cards reflect correct information for all races in the July 31 primary.

As it stood Friday, all other primary races and ballot questions, with the exception of the school board contests, are still scheduled for July 31.

Qualifying for the school board seats will be reopened July 9 and July 10, according to the order issued by U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson.

District 5 school board candidate Angel Davis-Hopper is now a resident of District 2 using the new map, and she must requalify in District 2 if she wishes to seek election, according to the order.

Lawson’s order was issued in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Bibb County residents Lester Miller, Gary Bechtel and Brenda Sutton challenging the voting districts, which were based on 2000 census data.

Miller and Sutton are candidates for upcoming school board races, and Bechtel is a current school board member seeking a seat on the Bibb County Commission.

A “stipulation of facts” was filed with the court Thursday by the plaintiffs, the school district and Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections. In the court filing, the parties agreed there have been population shifts in the past decade within the six voting districts and that the shifts required redistricting.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature and the Bibb County school board approved the new maps that redistribute Bibb County’s population evenly among school board districts. The maps needed approval from the federal Justice Department before they could be used for elections, but the department didn’t approve the new maps until earlier this month.

Qualifying for the board races was held in late May. Since the old maps relied on 2000 census data, the lawsuit contended that they violate the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” provision.

Carr didn’t have knowledge that the new redistricting plan for school districts was cleared by the Department of Justice until she was contacted by a newspaper reporter June 18, according to another Thursday federal court filing.

Contacted by phone Friday, she said she tried to halt the mailing of the voting cards on June 25, but it was too late. She estimates mailing new cards will cost $34,000 and the money will come from her budget. The state paid for the first mailing.

If a runoff is needed for the school board races, it would be held Sept. 18 and could cost between $50,000 and $75,000. The money also would come from the Board of Elections budget, she said.

Qualifying for the school board, county commission and the Macon Water Authority races were based on the 2000 census, Carr said.

New maps for the county commission and water authority races have not been cleared by the Department of Justice, she said.

Carr said she made plans for the school board race at the direction of Patrick Millsaps, an attorney for the Bibb County school district, and also contacted the state Attorney General’s Office.

It was her understanding at that time that a lawsuit would also be possible if she planned the race based on then-unapproved maps using 2010 census data, she said.

“There wasn’t a clear way to go,” Carr said.

Contacted Friday, Millsaps said it seems like there might have been a misunderstanding. He said he didn’t tell Carr to use the old maps to plan for the election.

“The board of education doesn’t have that authority,” he said.

Carr said she and one of her employees already are at work changing voter databases, configuring them to match the new map.

“It’s a very detailed, time-consuming thing,” she said.

The new map moves precincts and parts of precincts from one voting district to another.

By filing the federal lawsuit, Miller, Sutton and Bechtel protected voters’ rights, said Macon lawyer Charles Cox in a statement written in response to the judge’s order.

“Failure to bring this lawsuit would have resulted in many voters who had been moved into District 1 as a result of the reapportionment not having the opportunity to vote for the individual who would represent them on the Board of Education,” he said. “Ms. Sutton, Mr. Lester and Mr. Bechtel were unwilling to stand by while many Bibb County voters essentially were disenfranchised.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.