Saturday, February 25, 2012

Augusta Elections Date Change a Dirty Trick?

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012
Augusta, GA Commentary

UPDATE:  After the GA Senate defeated a bill earlier on Tuesday that included moving Augusta's local elections to the July 31st, primary, the GA House resurrected the effort later that night by amending Senate Bill 92 to include the elections date change. The vote came at 10pm. So what's going on here?

We first told you about an effort to move all non-partisan elections in Augusta from the November general election ballot to the July general primary ballot back on December 5, 2011 (See New Elections Law Could Save The Cabal here). GA House Bill 158 was passed into law by the Georgia General Assembly in the 2011 session. It shifted all county and consolidated  non-partisan elections from the general election to the mid-summer general primary ballot and would go in effect for the 2012 election season. However, an official opinion from the state Attorney General  said that Augusta was exempt from this law because it was considered a municipality under its charter.

But that still wouldn't stop proponents insisting on moving Augusta's local races to July. Just yesterday, the Georgia House passed a bill sponsored by Barbara Sims (R-Augusta) that would force Augusta to move its non-partisan races from the November general election ballot to the July primary ballot. The bill passed along party lines 95-58. Local Democrats vow to fight it.

Proponents of the bill say it is all about saving money for costly run-off elections. They contend that non-partisan races often result in run-offs and it's better to lump those with the primary run-offs in the summer instead of create new run-offs in early December. But the bill does not guarantee that there won't be anymore general election run-offs. Georgia law requires any candidate to receive 50% plus one vote to win an election outright. That's only 100% certain in a two-candidate race. Any race that has a third-party or Independent candidate can result in a run-off. A Libertarian forced a run-off in the 1992 Senate campaign that resulted in Republican Paul Coverdell unseating incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler. Will the Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly try to now ban Libertarians, other third parties, and independents from running on general election ballots in the name of avoiding costly general election run-offs?

If Republicans were really serious about saving taxpayers from extra run-off elections then they would instead pass a bill instituting Instant Run-offs. Also, known as preferential voting, voters rank their preferences of candidates on the ballot. This way if their 1st choice is knocked out in the first round, then their second or third choice will be counted in an instant run-off. This method has been used for many years in Australia and is employed in several US jurisdictions from Maine to Minnesota, and to parts of California. If avoiding costly run-offs is the goal, then IRV (Instant Run-off Voting) is the way to go.

But let's be honest, this is not about reducing run-off elections in Georgia. This is a blatant attempt to suppress black voter turnout for these local races in an effort to help the ruling establishment cling on to power in places like Augusta-Richmond County, which has become increasingly majority African-American over the past decade. With a majority African-American population approaching 60% in Richmond County, it seems inevitable that this majority will take the reigns of power in local government sooner or later. Well this effort to move the local elections to July seems to be an attempt by Republicans to push that inevitability to later.

It's not surprising that an Augusta politician would be the sponsor of this bill. It's been no big secret that the ruling establishment in Augusta has been in panic mode over the likelihood that blacks will soon take control over most areas of local government. There has even been a concerted effort to beg Sheriff Ronnie Strength to run for one more term because they think he is the only one capable of withstanding a challenge from a strong black candidate. With new redistricting maps, the racial balance on the  Augusta commission could  easily flip, especially with a large surge of black voters showing up in November to cast a vote for President Barack Obama. And that seems to explain why this change is to go in effect for this election year instead of delaying it to the 2014 election season. Could this change also be insurance for candidates like Matt Aitken, if he decides to run again?

Having such a major change in the elections date for local races in the same calendar year will also put extra burdens on candidates. They will have to scramble to qualify and then raise money for an election nearly four months earlier. And a mid-summer low turnout election will likely drastically change campaign strategy and the dynamics of the race. It also makes it very difficult for candidates to enter the race if they don't know exactly what date the election will be held on.

There is a very good possibility that the Department of Justice could throw out this legislation on the basis that it violates the Voting Rights Act in diluting minority voting strength. The motivation behind this move seems obvious enough. So after all is said and done, this could all be thrown out and the date for local elections remains in November. But until there is official word, there will be uncertainty for candidates and voters, and that's not a good thing.

Some people justify the elections change even acknowledging that it is likely motivated by suppressing black turn-out by saying that Democrats gerry-mandered districts and used dirty tricks to maintain power for years. But do two wrongs make a right? Even Augusta afternoon radio talk-show host Austin Rhodes said that the motivation behind this was obvious; that it was about suppressing black voter turnout. He told listeners that this did amount to a dirty trick, and that just because Democrats used similar tactics in the past did not make it right now because Republicans are in control. He said that Republicans should be better than that and take the "higher road."

The fact is there are many large cities that have switched to majority black rule, and they did not fall apart into chaos. Power shifted towards a black majority in Atlanta in the 1970s.. and the city actually experienced its greatest economic booms since that time. Corruption can come in all shades and Atlanta has had its fair share, but then so has Augusta.

This unfounded terror coming from the white  political and business establishment in Augusta over an inevitable majority black rule is a manifestation of  a deep-rooted racism that has continued to hold this community back for decades. And with this last ditch effort to cling onto power through dirty tricks, it's rearing its ugly head again and undoing years of what seemed like progress in race relations in Augusta. The people pushing this move need to be concerned about what kind of statement this is making to the outside world about Augusta and the state of Georgia. They are doing more damage by keeping the politics of racial division and mistrust alive than any imagined harm they see coming from inevitable majority black rule.***
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