City of South Fulton; Early Voting Restrictions Pass House Cmte
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale
(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia House Government Affairs Committee approved two controversial pieces of legislation–restricting the early voting period in municipal elections to six days, and allowing a voter referendum on the creation of a City of South Fulton–during its meeting on Monday, February 18, 2014.
HB 891 – PASSED CMTE. – REDUCES EARLY VOTING IN MUNICIPALITIES
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, HB 891 would reduce the early voting period in municipal elections across Georgia from the current 21 days to only six days.
In 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature already reduced the early voting period in all elections in Georgia from 45 days to 21 days.
HB 891 is co-sponsored by State Reps. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), Buzz Brockway (R-Lawrenceville), Andrew Welch (R-McDonough), Bruce Williamson (R-Monroe), Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming), and Ben Harbin (R-Evans).
The bill’s supporters say it was requested by the Georgia Municipal Association, on behalf of its members, which are cities across Georgia. They noted that there are some cities across Georgia with population in the thousands or even hundreds; and argued that requiring those cities staff the polls for three weeks puts an undue burden on those city’s taxpayers.
However, the language of HB 891, as written, does not limit itself to small cities, and does not allow cities discretion to have a longer early voting period should they decide that democracy is important to them.
Committee Chair Amy Carter (R-Valdosta) refused to allow public comment on the matter, stating that comment had already been taken at the subcommittee level.
“It is a step in the wrong direction in terms of encouraging more people to participate. It will impact minority participation. And, I think that’s the design,” Rev. Francys Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Georgia Chapter, said.
Prior to the hearing, the NAACP delivered a letter to Rep. Carter, urging the Committee Members to oppose this proposed bill, which promises to undermine hard-fought progress to expand access to the ballot in Georgia.
The letter to the House Governmental Affairs Committee was signed by 18 nonprofit, nonpartisan civil rights and advocacy organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; League of Women Voters of Georgia (LWVG); Georgia State Conference of the NAACP; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Southern Region; Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Georgia Chapter; Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, Inc. of Georgia; Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda (GCPA); Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia; Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, Inc.; Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials; Georgia Women’s Actions for New Directions; the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; African American Ministers in Action; Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition; the Peacemaking and Justice Committee of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church; the Presbyterian Peacemaking Partnership; Georgia Coalition of Black Women; Georgia Women for a Change, Inc.; Georgia Equality/Equality Foundation of Georgia; and Georgia Rural Urban Summit.
HB 891 had passed out of subcommittee on Tuesday, February 11, a day after Gov. Nathan Deal declared an extended state of emergency in 45 Georgia counties, including Fulton. The Governor had advised Georgians to stay at home and off the roads.
Therefore, only two opponents to the legislation had been able attend the Subcommittee hearing.
“If the icy, snowy week of February 10th was the only six days permitted for early voting, many would have been disenfranchised,” Elizabeth Poythress, President of LWVG, told APN.
“Many cities had [already] cut precincts to save money. They said that would be okay because they had 21 days of early voting,” Poythress said. At that time municipalities acknowledged early voting gave Georgians “time to vote in advance,” Poythress said.
She went on to say, “We have many coalition partners, who will stand up to oppose HB 891. This is not something we are going to allow; the disenfranchisement of any voters in Georgia.”
When it was reported that the City of Atlanta was not asked about its position on further restricting the days of early voting from 21 to six days, Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) asked, “Would it be wise to conduct a poll to find what the municipal governments want?”
The GMA representative stated that they do not poll their member municipalities to determine their opinion.
APN asked newly-elected Atlanta City Councilman, Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large), for his opinion on the bill.
Dickens–who in November 2013, unseated a fundamentally corrupt and unethical City Councilman, Lamar Willis–says that HB 891 favors incumbents.
“I think early voting is important in Atlanta because of the diverse population that we have. The seniors first come to mind, for early voting. A lot of them are able to go in a comfortable environment without standing in line,” Dickens said, also citing his concerns about students and business travelers.
“In Atlanta, with the number of people that are going to be at the polls, it’s important to have those early opportunities. I would say to the Legislature, I know the state runs elections, but local control and local insight is important,” Dickens said.
HB 891 passed with only the three dissenting votes of Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), and Rep. Howard Mosby (D-DeKalb).
“It is a travesty to justice that people were not allowed to speak and their opposition, to a bill that suppresses the vote. Early voting is so popular… We think we ought to get rid of people like these,” Helen Butler, Executive Director of the GCPA, said.
The bill’s supporters said many small municipalities reported instances of zero early voting. However, this does not take into account the fact that when there is an uncontested slate of candidates, early voting would logically not take place. However, the opposition was prevented from educating the committee members on this important explanation.
Likewise, in some cities, the election staff members who are employed year round work in the central location of the clerk’s office, where early voting takes place.
Reducing the early voting opportunity to six days may actually require additional staff to process a concentration of early voters in six days at an increased cost.
HB 704 – PASSED CMTE. – ALLOWS REFERENDUM ON CREATION OF CITY OF SOUTH FULTON
The Committee also passed HB 704, which would give the voters of south Fulton County the opportunity to decide if they want to become a city.
According to the General Assembly Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office, as proposed, South Fulton would take in all unincorporated pieces of Fulton County, including nine non-contiguous parts of south Fulton County.
Seven of these pieces are completely surrounded by another city, while two cases are surrounded by one city on one side and another city on the other side.
“What’s the reason for doing this? Why islands? This looks as though this is going to be a problem,” Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville) said.
These isolated parcels seem to be “unwanted step children,” rejected by the adjoining municipalities.
As previously reported by APN, the feasibility study for South Fulton came back favorably.
“This is going to be a nightmare,” Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun) said.
State Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta) introduced the legislation, and presented it to the Committee. He said that the bill was aimed at giving the people of south Fulton–the only remaining unincorporated part of Fulton County–more of a say of their governance, given that there are members of the Fulton County Commission from north Fulton who do not understand their needs and desires.
The statistics presented show the breakdown of population for each district. The largest of the unconnected pieces has 31,700 people in it. There are five islands that have no population in them; and the others have populations of 93, 5, and 2 people, respectively.
South Fulton would have a population of 87,487 people, making it the 9th largest city in Georgia.
All seven proposed districts would have a Black population of over 91 percent, with the exception of District 4, which would have an 81 percent Black population.
There have been seven newly created cities in Georgia since 2005, each in Metro Atlanta: Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton, Chattahoochee Hill Country, Dunwoody, Peachtree Corners, and Brookhaven.
In contrast to her refusal to allow opposing testimony on HB 891, the committee chairwoman Amy Carter did reluctantly ask if anyone would love to speak on this bill; no one volunteered.
Rep. Oliver made a motion to approve the bill. Though some Committee Members had serious concerns, the bill passed unanimously, and now goes to the House Rules Committee chaired by a skeptical Rep. Meadows.