In compliance with a new state law, Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia, is moving up the date for its nonpartisan elections from the month of November to July, when primary elections are held. Although such a move will synchronize the jurisdiction's non-partisan municipal election date with that of other counties in the Peach State, some Democrats are crying foul and playing the race card. Naturally, MSNBC is doing its part to join the chorus.
And so readers of the MSNBC.com website were greeted this morning with the teaser headline, "GOP revives Jim Crow tactic," which links to Zachary Roth's November 22 article, "Georgia GOP dusts off Jim Crow tactic: Changing election date."
"For years, Augusta, Georgia, has held its local elections in November, when turnout is high," Roth noted in his opening paragraph, "But last year, state Republicans changed the election date to July, when far fewer blacks make it to the polls."
Roth went on to explain that the federal Department of Justice had blocked such a move in years past, but the Supreme Court's ruling invalidating Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for the state to push through the date change:
The effort was blocked under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by the federal government, which cited the harm that the change would do to minorities. But now that the Supreme Court has badly weakened the landmark civil rights law, the move looks to be back on. The city’s African-Americans say they know what’s behind it.
“It’s a maneuver to suppress our voting participation,” Dr. Charles Smith, the president of Augusta’s NAACP [sic] branch, told msnbc.
The dispute is flaring at a time when Georgia, long deep-red, is becoming increasingly politically competitive, and Democrats have nominated two candidates with famous names for high-profile statewide races next year.
Of course, there's nothing clandestine about the move in the election date, and ultimately it's the responsibility of every voter to make him/herself aware of the issues and candidates in local elections, but Roth insisted that the move was reminiscent of a Jim Crow practice:
In Augusta, a city with a troubled history of race bias in elections, conservatives reached back over a century to unearth a tactic that was used to keep blacks from the polls during Jim Crow: changing the date of elections.
The item linked in that passage is an abstract to a paper by a UC Irvine Law professor who compares recent Republican voting law changes to when North Carolina Democrats in 1898 pushed through election law changes with the aim of disempowering Republicans. At that time, most African-American voters in the Tar Heel State were Republicans, and they were a key to the GOP's electoral success in the 1890s in North Carolina.
But as the professor noted in that paper, it wasn't so much that racist Democrats in 1900 pushed back the election from November to August but that "all voters [had] to register anew" and the law "gave registrars discretion to exclude voters."
In this case, we simply have the local election date pushed back a few months, and that in accord with the local election dates for Georgia's counties:
Last year, Rep. Barbara Sims, a Republican who represents the area, pushed a law through Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature that applied only to Augusta. Against the clear wishes of the city council, the law moved the city’s elections for mayor and city council from the day of the general election in November to the day of the primaries in July.
Sims said at the time the goal was to establish uniformity with other non-partisan local elections in the state, which had been moved to July under previous legislation that applied only to counties, not cities.
While Roth neglected to note this, the city of Augusta and Richmond County are one subdivision, styled Augusta-Richmond County, and so it makes sense for Augusta to move its elections to July, to match that of the state's other counties.
But even if one disagrees on that count, it's a legitimate debate to be had that need not descend into race-baiting. To read racism and "Jim Crow" tactics into this controversy is insulting to the real victims of Jim Crow intimidation and violence and to the intelligence of all Augusta-Richmond County voter, particularly African-American ones who, we are being asked to believe, cannot adjust to an earlier election calendar unlike their white neighbors.
What George W. Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations," finds itself at home on the Lean Forward network's website.