In September, the city of Sandy Springs asked to be exempted from provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act so the city could run its own elections and cut election costs.
Earlier this month, the Fulton County Commission adopted a resolution opposing the move and saying the 45-year-old law was still needed to make sure elections in the states where the law applies, most of them southern states, were conducted fairly.
The county also noted that the act requires 10 years of clean election history before a community can be declared exempt from the law. Sandy Springs has existed as a city for only about half that time.
Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves was one of the authors of the resolution. The Sandy Springs Reporter asked him why Sandy Springs shouldn’t conduct its own elections. We also asked Sandy Springs City Attorney Wendell Willard why he thought the city should be granted an exemption from the Voting Rights Act.
Here are their replies:
John Eaves, Chairman, Fulton County Commission
Q. Should Sandy Springs run its own elections?
A. That is clearly a decision that must be made by Sandy Springs. Only Sandy Springs can say whether they are knowledgeable and prepared to conduct their elections in accordance with the Georgia Election Code. The law allows for municipalities to conduct their own elections and there are many in the state of Georgia that do so. However, they can contract with the county within which they lie to perform this service. Fulton County has always been willing to work with the municipalities to provide this service at their request.
Also, one could argue as county elections officials that encouraging local municipalities to conduct their own elections, for whatever reason, could potentially eliminate the need for county elections departments; especially if the state (through the Secretary of State’s office) takes over conducting all federal and state elections.
Q. What’s wrong with Sandy Springs seeking an exemption from the Voting Rights Act so that it can run its own elections?
A. First, they do not need to seek an exemption from the Voting Rights Act to run their own elections. The law allows for municipalities to conduct their own elections. Whether they conduct their own elections or contract with the county, they are still required to get pre-clearance for called elections and voting locations (county poll locations are used when county conducts elections, so county requests preclearance for changes).
We must consider several important factors when making a determination as to whether or not certain sections of the Voting Rights Act are still viable in Fulton County. First and foremost, this act exists, along with the need for pre-clearance by certain states, due to the fact that those states refused to adhere to regulations and laws outlined within the 13th through the 15th Amendments. More specifically, voters were discriminated against on the basis of race and not allowed the opportunity to exercise their right to vote through the divisive use of mechanisms like literacy test, poll taxes and grandfather clauses.
So the question is whether Sandy Springs can produce factual evidence or statistics to show that disenfranchisement of minorities is no longer an issue in the city, county, or state of Georgia. Some would argue that the restrictions are still needed to ensure equality in access to voting.
In addition, we must also ask from the point of federal law and in accordance with the Georgia elections code, if the federal courts will not allow states the option of exempting themselves from this policy, what factors allow local municipalities to do so?
Q. How does federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act ensure elections are more fairly conducted than they would otherwise be?
A. There are extremely significant and historical reasons why federal oversight of the elections process remains a major debate in government, the media and in both the private and public sector.
First and foremost, as elections officials, we must adhere to the laws that are mandated by the state of Georgia and the federal courts. We are aware that this debate is inclusive of vast and extensive political and social views and beliefs. As with the Civil Rights Act that preceded the Voting Rights Act, the question and argument of relevance will always exist. So the question becomes: Does racism still exist in Georgia today? Does discrimination still exist in Georgia today? And, what authority has the right to make that determination or distinction?
Metropolitan Atlanta still remains one of the most segregated (by choice) regions in this nation. We must ask if many of the social issues from just a generation ago still exist. What we know for sure is that in order for elections to be fair across the board, there must be uniformity.
Q. Sandy Springs officials say they are simply trying to save money by running its own elections. Shouldn’t local governments save money any way they can?
A. Saving taxpayer dollars is always extremely important. Finding ways to streamline the process and make it more cost-effective while increasing the level of efficiency should always be a priority and a part of the mission of government regardless of party affiliation. In fact, Sandy Springs could probably save money by conducting their own election as they could set the rate of pay for poll workers and temporary staff, determine to hire a number of temporary staff less than that hired by the county, order less ballots and use polling facilities that do not charge a fee.
Wendell Willard, Sandy Springs City Attorney and member of the state House of Representatives
Q. Why does Sandy Springs need to be exempt from the provisions of the Voting Rights Act?
A. Primarily for flexibility, Sandy Springs would like to have the option of conducting its own special and general elections for council members. Our study has shown that conducting our own elections could save 40 percent to 50 percent over what would be charged by the Fulton County Board of Elections.
Q. Does seeking to be exempt from the Voting Rights Act send an inappropriate message to the public?
A. No. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision encourages local jurisdictions to seek exemptions when, historically, it can be shown there has not been any conduct within the jurisdiction where an individual’s right to vote has been oppressed or denied. Sandy Spring meets the criteria for exemption.
Q. Is maintaining the “appearance of fairness” in elections more important than saving money on the elections?
A. Fairness is not an “appearance”, it is a fact by how individuals are treated by the governing authority of the Sandy Springs community. Why does one have to exclude the other? In fact both can be achieved.
Q. Do you think Fulton County is trying to derail Sandy Springs’ efforts to run its own elections? Why?
A. Implicit in the passing of the resolution by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners opposing the grant of exemption to Title V of the 1965 Voters Rights Act is a continuing anger by some members of the Commission to Sandy Springs’ having become a city, and the loss of their control over the tax revenues generated from this area. Also, explicit in passing the resolution is the possible loss of extra revenue the county would receive in conducting our city elections if exemption is granted. The resolution does not address a single factual circumstance illustrating why Sandy Springs should not be entitled to an exemption. It’s all about the money.