Judge might delay Georgia primary if he throws out new districts

Election officials testify about impact of a later primary

A federal judge suggested he could delay Georgia’s primary election, possibly until June or July, if he rules that the state’s new political maps illegally weakened representation of Black voters.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones said in court Wednesday that he would consider the risks to voter confusion and confidence before ruling on lawsuits alleging Georgia’s redistricting discriminated against Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Redrawn districts and a later primary would further inflame a high-stakes election year, drawing out contentious campaigns for governor and Congress.

Redistricting lawsuits are seeking an additional majority-Black district after new GOP-drawn maps positioned Republicans to gain a seat in Congress, where they currently hold an 8-6 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

Delaying the primary could potentially allow Jones to address concerns raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative justices in a redistricting decision earlier this week.

The high court put on hold a lower court ruling that Alabama was required to draw new congressional districts to increase Black voting power, in part because there’s little time to craft new maps before the May 24 primary.

“I could change the whole calendar,” Jones said. “I need to hear all the evidence before I make a decision,” likely soon after court hearings conclude early next week.

Plaintiffs are asking Jones to order the Georgia General Assembly to redraw political maps so that they include more majority-Black districts. Georgia’s Black population grew by nearly 500,000 people over the past decade, but lawsuits contend that redistricting left Black voters without opportunities for commensurate representation.

Attorneys defending the state said redoing redistricting or delaying elections could cause major problems for rushed election officials responsible for accurately updating 7.7 million voter records to ensure everyone is assigned to the correct congressional, state House, state Senate, county commission and school board districts.

Lynn Bailey, a recently retired election director for Richmond County, said it would be difficult to prepare for the primary in time if Georgia’s district lines were redrawn next month.

“There would be chaos, of course. There would be a scramble,” said Bailey, a witness for the state. “We would work as hard as we could to make these timelines work.”

Other county election directors testified for the plaintiffs that if the primary were delayed, they’d have more time to run a smooth primary before the general election Nov. 8.

Fulton County Election Director Richard Barron said there’s a danger that voters could feel disenfranchised if redistricting doesn’t give them adequate opportunities for representation.

“That can affect participation if voters feel the process isn’t fair,” Barron testified.

Election directors have experience adjusting to election delays. In 2020, the state’s presidential primary was postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic before it finally took place in June.

“It would be difficult, but as election officials, we are accustomed to getting a lot of things done in a short amount of time,” Muscogee County Election Director Nancy Boren said. “Additional time is always a good thing to have.”

The plaintiffs said the May 24 primary could be delayed as late as July 26 and still leave election officials enough time to prepare ballots, test voting machines and meet deadlines to send absentee ballots to overseas and military voters before the general election.

County election officials had previously asked the General Assembly to move the primary back a month because of a tight redistricting timeline. The secretary of state’s office set a Feb. 18 deadline for counties to update voters’ information to reflect their new districts, and candidates must file to run for office the week of March 7.

A resolution that election officials passed at the August meeting of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials sought the delay, but legislators never considered a bill to change the election date.