The Hinesville City Council held a called meeting Thursday to address allegations that this year’s municipal election may be in jeopardy.
City Attorney Linnie Darden III confirmed at the meeting that the city’s proposed district lines, which the council approved in August, have yet to officially be cleared through the Department of Justice. He added that he is working closely with the department to secure a letter of preclearance before advanced voting begins Monday.
"We intend to go forward under the new districts, knowing that the preclearance should be here by the beginning of the date," Darden said.
The preclearance letter, which effectively makes the new districts official, originally was expected to arrive Aug. 25, Darden said. As of the close of business on Friday, the letter had not yet arrived. The election will be Nov. 8.
"So, all of the voting districts remain the same, all of the instructions remain the same, we will begin early voting on Monday," said Mayor Jim Thomas, also a candidate in the election.
District 5 candidate John Spradley brought the issue to light during Tuesday night’s candidate forum, hosted by the NAACP Liberty County Chapter and the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce.
Georgia Secretary of State spokesman Matthew Carrothers confirmed Friday morning that the city still had not received preclearance from the Department of Justice and that the city attorney is working closely with the Elections Division regarding the matter.
"The qualifying for the seats was done under the new or proposed lines," Carrothers said. "If you got (preclearance) today, you could start early voting, and it would be done under new lines."
During the Thursday meeting, Spradley and several other candidates volleyed questions to the council, City Manager Billy Edwards and Darden.
"Yesterday I spent most of the day talking with the fraud department of the state of Georgia Elections Department, and I was informed that there’s no way — even if y’all would have gotten the approval letter stating that the redistricts are good from the Justice Department — that Georgia would have enough time before the pre-elections started … to adjust it in their system on their side to show the new districts," Spradley said. "What I’m getting from the state is different from what you’re telling me here."
The confusion likely will give candidates ground to contest the election results, and a subsequent race would in turn cost taxpayers more money "for a mess that (the city council) created," he added. "Redistricting never should have been started during an election period — it should have been done outside an election period."
After the meeting, Edwards explained that the redistricting process was done in accordance with data from the 2010 Census to comply with the Voting Rights Act requirement that each district have equal populations.
The city Graphical Information Systems department manager Anna Phillips began receiving the census data used to draw the districts this spring, Edwards said.
District 5 candidate Angela Wilson asked which lines the candidates should run on if the city does not receive preclearance by Monday and whether candidates should expect a call or a public announcement to confirm whether the letter has been received.
Darden reiterated that candidates should presume the new lines will be in effect and said that any changes should be communicated in called meetings.
Mayoral candidate Tyrone Adams asked for clarification on Darden’s wording, asking about whether the city is waiting on a "preclearance" or a "clearance" letter, and Darden verified that he is referring to the preclearance document.
Mayoral candidate Billy Kitchings, District 1 candidate Diana Reid and District 5 candidate Hannah Williams-Donegan attended the meeting but did not address the council.
After the meeting, Williams-Donegan expressed that she, too, received different information from the state. She also said she was told in a previous conversation with Edwards, the mayor, some council members and City Clerk Sarah Lumpkin that the districts had received preclearance.
"My understanding is, if they have not been approved and we have at least 30 days for the voter registrar to notify the voters that their voter polling place has changed, then we’re outside of the voting regulation," she said. "I don’t know how they’re going to do that with today being the 13th of October and the election being Nov. 8."
When asked about the candidates’ allegations that they received information from the state Elections Division that conflicted with the city’s reports, Carrothers said he could neither verify nor deny the statements.
"I don’t want to speculate on who said what to whom unless I have some definitive information," he said.
Both Carrothers and Edwards said that as long as the city receives preclearance in advance of early voting, there is no required lag time before an election. They recommended verifying with the Liberty County Board of Elections that ballots will be distributed to voters according to the new district lines.
Elections Supervisor Ella Golden said Friday that she had not received any information about the matter, but added that her department is trying to comply with the city.
"We are holding the election for the city. (We will do) whatever the city instructs us to do," she said. Golden said the voter-registration lists reflect the new district lines.
During the meeting, resident Jim McIntosh stood and asked how the issue will affect voters.
"I’m curious when I go to the polls — and I’m not running for office — what district am I going to be in? … When are you going to notify the people who are actually going to the polls to vote?" McIntosh asked.
The mayor responded that notifying voters about changes in their precincts and districts is "not the function of the city council."
"We give that to the board of registrars. They will tell you when," Thomas said. "We’ve already notified the registrar that the districts are set."
Darden interjected and said that notices had been sent to affected voters. Many in the crowd — including some of the speaking candidates — responded that they have not received notices of change.
Board of Elections Chairman Dicky Braun said that until Thursday, the elections department had been planning to conduct the election according to the previous district lines.
"The city qualifies the candidates. The notification to the voters is on us, but since this was a midnight-hour decision by the city, we have only one way to do that at this point," Braun said. He recommended that voters contact the elections office at 876-3310.
"The city attorney (Darden) and our attorney (Kelly Davis) got together and made an agreement that we would conduct the election, but that we would hold the city responsible for any problems that might occur," he added. "It’s really an unusual situation to say the least, but I don’t think anybody will be affected — the candidates or the voters — because even though it is at the last moment, they can determine what district they’re in."