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East Athens residents to file lawsuit in special election controversy

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At a mayor and commission meeting on October 4, 2022, Dr. Cshanyse Allen urged lawmakers to push for a November 8 special election to fill the vacant District 2 seat.

A group of East Athens residents is heading to court, hoping to force the Clarke County Board of Elections to reverse its decision on when to hold a special election for the vacant District 2 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission.

According to Dexter Wimbish, an attorney for the residents, a writ of mandamus asking a judge to require the Board of Elections to reschedule the special election was filed in Clarke County Superior Court on Tuesday. A hearing has been scheduled for Friday afternoon.

The East Athens residents are also exerting political pressure in addition to their legal action. Cshanyse Allen, President of the nonprofit organization Inner East Athens, which is also a part of the suit, spoke at Tuesday’s meeting of the Mayor and Commission, and urged commissioners to call on the Board of Elections to move the special election back to November 8. No action was taken on Allen’s request, but commissioners last month passed a resolution supporting the March 21 date.

Allen told commissioners that if they did not act, “our next stop will be to the Governor’s mansion, where we’ll ask him to appoint a District 2 commissioner to replace Mariah Parker. If he appoints a Republican, we will live with that.”

Members of the Board of Elections briefly discussed the matter at a meeting on Monday but chose not to schedule a special meeting for further discussion until more developments happen in the litigation.

The special election controversy began when then-Commissioner Parker announced their intent to resign on August 29, effective August 31. Due to a delay in informing Governor Brian Kemp, as required by state law, Parker’s resignation date was later adjusted to September 8. Their resignation was accepted by Kemp on September 9.

At a Board of Elections meeting on September 13, members heard from the county’s Elections Director, Charlotte Sosebee, who told the board that a special election held concurrently with the November 8 general election would create significant logistical hurdles.

Among other challenges, a November special election would, under state law, require separate voting machines and separate poll workers. Election day voters could vote in the same polling place but would have to stand in a different line to vote in the special election.

In a special called meeting on September 20, the Board of Elections voted 3-2 in favor of the March 21 date.

Sosebee also told elections board members in September 13 that, with a November 8 election, errors and confusion were inevitable.

Much of that confusion revolves around who would be eligible to vote. Because the new district lines take effect after January 1, an election in November would be held under the old District 2 boundaries, while a March election would utilize the new lines. That creates a significant problem because much of the old District 2 is, after redistricting, contained within Districts 3 and 9. Much of the new District 2 will contain portions of old Districts 3 and 5. Only a handful of voters from the old District 2 live in the newly drawn version of the district.

Supporters of the November election date, including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, allege that holding the election in March would effectively disenfranchise voters from the old District 2. That is not entirely accurate, however. Most voters formerly in District 2 now live in Districts 3 and 9 and had an opportunity to vote for a Commissioner during May’s local elections.

Voters formerly in Districts 3 and 5 who were drawn into the new District 2 would miss out on an opportunity to vote for a new commissioner, however. Because those voters were moved into District 2, they did not have a candidate on the ballot in May. Without a special election in March, those voters, primarily in Athens’ urban core, would have to wait until 2024 before they would have a chance to vote for a new commissioner.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.