The Union Recorder

July 18, 2013

Commission: Election changes far off

Kyle Collins
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — In an early July Baldwin County Commissioners meeting, the board asked county attorney David McRee to research the possibility of non-partisan elections, staggered terms and electing a countywide chair.

The findings showed a long way to go if the county desires further implementation.

When McRee spoke to other legal associates in tune with the state lawmakers, they described ‘no appetite in Atlanta’ for non-partisan elections.

“There is no Georgia law on the books that allows for non-partisan elections of county commissioners. It would require the legislature to pass a general law applying to all 159 counties. Once that passed, the individual counties could introduce local legislation to have their counties set up on a non-partisan basis,” the county attorney said Tuesday.

The only exception is allowed under consolidated local governments.

Commission Chair Sammy Hall, District 3, said the political parties don’t want to do non-partisan because they lose their portion of the qualifying fee paid by all aspiring elected officials.

Commissioner Tommy French, District 2, wants no part of elections he sees leaning toward the more wealthy and Republican candidates.

“It’s a way of diluting the minority vote. All these things coming forward are doing this, point blank. Being a minority candidate, I have to look out for my county and district to the whole picture,” French said about all three ideas.

While non-partisan requires a legislative mountain moved, the other options seem more doable.

Presently, five elected commissioners serve four-year terms. Staggered terms would switch certain districts to two years eliminating a complete turnover during each election.

McRee said the county must pass a resolution to send to Atlanta asking the legislative delegation to introduce local legislation for staggered commission terms.

The county’s attorney suggested waiting until the current four-year terms end.

“Doing something sooner would be difficult and require voter referendum after passage of local legislation,” McRee said Tuesday. “It’s probably not a workable situation to shorten any terms right now.”

At least two of five districts would switch to two-year terms. Deciding who is staggered stands as a point of debate if county commission pursues. 

Converting from a chairman elected on an annual basis by the current board to a chair running county-wide and elected by voters could also be accomplished through local legislation.

McRee said the commissioners would look at adding a sixth commissioner running county-wide and maintaining the five existing voting districts or redistricting the other four and making one for the county-wide chair.

The county altered voting districts off the 2010 census, so things could get dicey. 

Past redistricting efforts required stringent United States Justice Department approval based on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In June, a Supreme Court decision declared unconstitutional a portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act that determines which states and localities must get federal approval for proposed election changes.

Based on the June ruling, Georgia is one of several states no longer needing federal approval for election law changes, from polling location to district lines.

Hall and others agreed any of the proposed changes require more thought and discussion.

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