ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: Town wanting to opt out of Voting Rights Act draws rebuke

June 2, 2010
April Hunt

Sandy Springs, the first Georgia city to try and bail out of of the Voting Rights Act, on Wednesday drew its first public rebuke, a Fulton County Commission resolution scolding its efforts.

The resolution opposing Sandy Springs' request carried no legal weight, but it sharply defined the differences between the county and a city that incorporated four years ago, with the latter claiming its residents are not receiving proper attention and service from the former and then seeking to be relieved from federal oversight of elections.

“Fairness is your concern about elections, not cost,” said Hasan Crockett, a Morehouse College political science professor, who urged the county commission to oppose the city. “Free and fair elections are not a city service like garbage pick-up. It is a right protected in every constitution, from the federal level down.”

Congress passed the act in 1965 to stamp out illegal efforts to deny minorities access to voting. It applies to all or part of 16 states, including Georgia and much of the Deep South. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that jurisdictions could seek relief from the act’s Section 5, which requires jurisdictions to gain federal clearance to change any election procedure, including small items such as moving polling sites.

After an unsuccessful attempt to run its own elections last fall, Sandy Springs requested the U.S. Justice Department exempt it from federal oversight earlier this year.

“We would like the opportunity to conduct our own city elections and not have to go through the county or anyone else,” Wendell Willard, Sandy Springs city attorney, said. “We believe we can do the job, and do it at a better cost.”

Sandy Springs, which began contracting government services to the private sector after its incorporation in 2005, found an outside firm to handle its November election for $250,000. City leaders backed away when it was determined the Justice Department couldn't review the proposal in time.

Sandy Springs paid $400,000 for Fulton County to run the election.

Crockett was the sole resident to speak before the commission vote. Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

In the past, Galambos has said she supported the bailout because of the cost savings and increased control for the city.

Crockett said he worried the city's efforts were racially motivated and part of northern Fulton’s strategy to create another Milton County.

Commissioner Chairman John Eaves, who co-sponsored the resolution, said the lack of a Sandy Springs history was troubling.

“To qualify for an exemption you need proof that there was no discrimination in the past 10 years, and Sandy Springs does not even have a 10-year history,” Eaves said. “We think the Voting Rights Act still applies.”

Justice Department investigators already have conducted interviews with proponents and opponents of Sandy Springs’ request. The agency is expected to rule later this summer.

County leaders will send their resolution of opposition to the Justice Department for review. However, the county has no standing if the city loses its request. Sandy Springs next can sue for the exemption in federal district court.

Commissioners Tom Lowe and Lynne Riley dissented on the county resolution, saying the county had no right to adopt it.

“You know how far that resolution will get in the Department of Justice? The first trash can,” Lowe said. “We have no authority to tell a city what to do. It’s just political pandering.”