By April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
6:40 p.m. Thursday, September 23, 2010Sandy Springs has become the first Georgia city to bail out of the Voting Rights Act’s federal oversight of its elections.
Now, given the relative cost of the city’s legal challenge and what it expects to save on paperwork and running its own elections, more cities in the state and across the South may follow suit.
“The fact is, Section 5 is time consuming, expensive and a regulatory nightmare,” said Doug Chalmers, a Johns Creek attorney who helped Sandy Springs request a U.S. Justice Department exemption from that section of the act. “I would expect a number of jurisdictions wanting to bail out of that.”
No other Georgia cities have made that move.
Johns Creek tabled its discussion about the issue while the Sandy Spring challenge was under way. Mayor Mike Bodker said it would be premature to say what the city’s position is now that a deal is in place, but he did note that his city, like Sandy Springs, is a new community with no negative history to overcome.
“It was absolutely on our radar,” Bodker said. “This (deal) will be something you can be sure we’ll take into consideration.”
Congress passed the act in 1965 to stamp out illegal efforts to deny minorities access to the ballot box. It applies to all or part of 16 states, including Georgia.
In 2006, Congress renewed the act for 25 years.
Then in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jurisdictions could seek relief from the act’s Section 5, which requires them to gain federal clearance to change any election procedure, including small items such as moving polling sites.
It was that pre-clearance issue that tripped up Sandy Springs last year. The city found an outside firm to handle its citywide election for $250,000 but backed away when it realized the Justice Department couldn’t review the proposal in time.
The city ended up paying Fulton County $400,000 to run the election.
By contrast, it cost the city about $25,000 to file for a bail out from federal oversight. There was also some staff time involved, since investigators from the Justice Department interviewed proponents and opponents of the move in person in the spring.
In agreeing to grant the exemption late Wednesday, the department noted there were no allegations of anyone being prohibited from voting in Sandy Springs in the past decade. That includes when it was unincorporated Fulton County.
The clean record most likely helped the city’s case, Chalmers said. Even so, the agreement gives the Justice Department a quick route to revoking the exemption, if there are future problems, for 10 years.
The agreement also requires a citizen advisory committee to provide oversight of all elections to avoid any pitfalls.
“We are not going to be voting in cigar boxes by tearing off sheets of paper,” said Councilman Tibby DeJulio, the city’s mayor pro tem . “We intend to have the highest quality of elections with the least problems, and at a savings to our citizens.”
The Fulton County Commission rebuked the Sandy Springs effort in a non-binding resolution in June, questioning whether elections would be fair for all voters without the federal oversight.
Neither Commission Chairman John Eaves nor Hasan Crockett, a Morehouse College political science professor who was the only resident who urged the county to oppose the city, could be reached for comment on Thursday.
The exemption surprised one elections expert. Emory University law professor Michael Kang had expected the Obama administration to be more aggressive on voting rights.
But, as with a recent Justice Department approval of Georgia’s voter verification law, granting the approval may just reflect a more conservative political climate and Supreme Court, Kang said.
The exemptions also may shield the Voting Rights Act from constitutional challenges, Kang said, by making it clear such bailouts are possible.
“There is a belief that Section 5 probably covers more jurisdictions than it should right now,” Kang said. “It may be that good actors can bail out because they don’t raise the types of concerns the act deals with and [that] lets the department turn its attention to those that do.”
The department also granted an exemption to Kings Mountain, N.C., according to its official statement. The exemptions take effect immediately.
Copies of the statement and consent order are available online at www.sandyspringsga.org.