Elections board bill becomes law

By Justin Reedy

A bill creating a full-time elections board and superintendent position in Clayton County has been signed into law, but the work to shift the duty of supervising the county's elections has just begun.

Under existing state law, Clayton County's elections have been supervised by the county Probate Court judge, Eugene Lawson. But with the county's population burgeoning past 200,000 in the last few years, Lawson has had to juggle his full-time duties as the probate court judge with the increasingly difficult part-time position of election superintendent.

Because of that, local legislators made Senate Bill 360, which would create a county Board of Elections and an appointed full-time elections superintendent, one of their top priorities for this year's legislative session. After passing both chambers of the state legislature earlier this year, Gov. Sonny Perdue recently signed the bill into law.

That represents the end of a long road for local legislators but only the beginning for Lawson and county officials, who will now start the process of transitioning election duties to the Board of Elections and full-time superintendent.

"I am relieved, but the successful conversion is in progress," Lawson said. "I won't be completely relieved until the conversion is over."

As required under federal law, the bill is being submitted to the United States Department of Justice for "pre-clearance" under the Voting Rights Act. That law requires that any change in voting practices in southern states be examined to ensure it doesn't discriminate against minority voters.

County Attorney Don Comer is preparing the county's application for pre-clearance and expects to have it completed and sent this week.

Normally, officials would wait until the Justice Department approves the change before implementing it, but that won't be the case in this situation since the county will be holding a special election in September. That election will include a referendum on a proposed 1 percent sales tax increase to fund road improvements and recreation facilities, will fill a vacancy on the county Board of Education and elect Lawson's successor since the probate judge is retiring in July.

The appointment of a elections board by the county Board of Commissioners and the selection of a qualified full-time superintendent are both expected to take quite some time, Comer said. Because of that, he will recommend that the county commission begin that process before Justice Department approval to ensure the county is prepared for the September special election.

Such action isn't common, he said, but it shouldn't be a problem since the change in voting practices isn't controversial. In addition, the county will only be making preparations for the switch until Justice Department approval comes down.

"We can't take a chance on a delay or wait on Justice Department approval before starting to prepare," Comer said. "I don't know if we are setting precedent, but we're just getting everything in order for when pre-clearance occurs."