The U.S. Justice Department put off the July elections for the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government until state legislators explain how they decided the timing and non-partisan format of the election.
That's according to a letter from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to the Bibb County Attorney, Virgil Adams.
Georgia is one of nine states, most of them in the South, whose elections are supervised by the Justice Dept. under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to protect against discriminatory voting practices.
Less than a year after pushing through a consolidation charter with partisan elections in November, Georgia's General Assembly this year decided that elections for the new consolidated government would be nonpartisan and held July 16.
That angered some Bibb County Democrats who asked the Justice Dept. to overturn that under the Voting Rights Act.
The Democrats argued that holding the election in July would reduce the impact of black voters who, statistics show, are less likely to vote in summer elections. They also argued for partisan elections, continuing the practice in the city of Macon and Bibb County.
The department has given the Bibb County legislative delegation 60 days to answer a list of questions and requests for materials related to the move to a nonpartisan July election.
If local legislators don't submit that information by the deadline, the Justice Dept. said it would rule without any local input.
That 60-day deadline extends beyond the original scheduled date of the election, July 16.
13WMAZ contacted all six mayoral candidates. Some expressed disappointment with today's decision. Others, however, still oppose the move to non-partisan elections in the first place.
Former mayor and current mayoral candidate C. Jack Ellis sides with the non-partisan group and lashed out at the state lawmakers for changing it.
"It was wrong of them to do it when they knew we had just voted in a very contentious consolidation bill and we voted for partisan elections," Ellis said.
"That had been the trade off between the Sheriff being the top cop and the partisan election, and they turned around and changed it, and they did it with the knowledge of the chairman and the mayor, and they were quiet as church mice here and they should not have been," Ellis said.
Ellis was refering to fellow mayoral candidates Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Mayor Robert Reichert. Neither Hart nor Reichert could be reached for comment.
But mayoral candidate David Cousino thinks the Justice Department should leave things alone.
"Our city should be just like all the other (cities) of our size here in being non-partisan instead of a handful of people saying, 'well they're taking away from us or this.' No it's wrong. It needs to be non-partisan."
State Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, helped put together the plan for non-partisan elections. Peake said local state lawmakers don't necessarily have notes and minutes of the meetings they held where non-partisan elections were discussed.
While Peake expressed disappointment in the Justice Department request, he said delegation members will collect what they do have and make them available to Justice Department officials.
Peake also said the issue could become moot if the U.S. Supreme rules unconstitutional that portion of the Voting Rights Act that says the Justice Department can review any voting changes in nine states including Georgia and Alabama, plus more than 30 counties and municipalities around the country.
A case before the Supreme Court involves a challenge to the law from Selby County in Alabama.
In the case, which is likely to be decided in late June, the full court must decide whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act violates the Constitution because it singles out states and municipalities based on a formula last updated in 1972.
Fellow state House member James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, said the entire process has been a learning opportunity for both the delegation and the community.
"Number one, you better get buy-in from the whole community," Beverly said.
"Number two, if you're going to say something, be an honest broker when you do it, and number three, let's do it together and be more transparent in the way in which we deal with one another."
Dept. of Justice Letter to Atty. Adams
Contributing: USA TODAY