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Augusta judge to hear District 2 court challenge

An Augusta judge has been named to hear a lawsuit against the Clarke County Board of Elections over the special election in ACC’s District 2.

Judge J. Wade Padgett, a Superior Court Judge in the Columbia Judicial Circuit will hear arguments Friday afternoon in the lawsuit, which was filed by a group of East Athens residents earlier this week. The suit seeks to force Clarke County elections officials to hold the special election to fill the seat vacated by Mariah Parker on November 8, rather than the scheduled date of March 21, 2023.

That case was originally set to be heard by Judge Lisa Lott of Athens but was reassigned to Padgett after attorneys for Athens-Clarke County contended that, under state law, a judge from outside Clarke County’s judicial circuit had to be appointed.

Attorneys for the county also argued that, under Georgia law, a hearing couldn’t be held on Friday because a hearing cannot not be scheduled less than ten days after the suit is filed. According to court filings, the lawsuit was filed on October 4, some three days before today’s hearing.

However, a Thursday letter to attorneys for both sides from Padgett indicates that he will hear the case on Friday afternoon.

At a meeting on September 13, Board of Elections members heard from county elections staff about the difficulty of holding the special election on the same date as the November 8 general election. Under Georgia law, the election could be held on November 8, but would have to be a separate election, requiring different voting machines and additional poll workers. Voters in that district would also effectively have to vote twice – once in the general election and again for the special election.

The plaintiffs, which include the nonprofit Inner East Athens, Inc., say that holding the special election on March 21 effectively disenfranchises voters in the old District 2, but an analysis of voter data and the new district lines indicate that their contention is not completely accurate.

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

Under redistricting earlier this year, most of the old District 2 voters were placed into the newly drawn Districts 3 and 9. Those voters were able to vote for commission candidates in May’s local election and will be represented starting in January by Tiffany Taylor in District 3 and Ovita Thornton in District 9. A small number of voters who are in both the old and new versions of District 2 would be eligible to vote regardless of whether the election is held in November or March.

Because voter lists for the new districts have already been created, county elections staff say they would have to essentially rebuild the old list by hand, a process which could lead to significant errors and an erosion of voters’ trust.

A November 8 election would leave a sizeable number of Athens voters without representation, however. Many voters who were in Districts 3 and 5 prior to redistricting were drawn into the radically-changed District 2. Because commissioners in even-numbered districts were elected in 2020, those voters did not get a chance to vote in the new district 2 in May and would have to wait until 2024 before being able to vote for a 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.
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