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Elections bills wait on approval

By Justin Reedy

A law that would require a special election this fall to fill a vacancy on the Clayton County Board of Education has to get approval from the United States Department of Justice.

Another bill dealing with local elections that was approved by the state legislature this year is awaiting the governor's signature before its mandatory review by the Justice Department.

Senate Bill 374, which passed the legislature and was signed by the governor last month, requires a special election to fill any vacancies on the county school board when more than 180 days remains on the term of office. But before the law can take full effect, it has to be approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act to ensure it doesn't discriminate against minority voters.

The county school board has sent its application for Justice Department pre-clearance for the law, according to Probate Judge Eugene Lawson, the county elections superintendent.

Though the Justice Department isn't allowed to comment on any unresolved matters, officials have 60 days from the receipt of the application to decide on pre-clearance, according to Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez.

Another bill that deals with local election law n Senate Bill 360, which would create a full-time elections superintendent and elections board n is still awaiting the governor's signature before it can head to the Justice Department. A spokeswoman for Gov. Sonny Perdue declined to comment on when that approval could occur, citing the large number of bills that Perdue has to consider after the legislature recesses.

"He has to review all of the bills (approved by the state legislature)," said Kim King, the governor's press secretary. "He wants to give them all a careful overview before deciding on them."

The governor has until June 4 to either sign or veto any legislation approved during this session, King said, so a decision should be coming soon on the bill. An application for pre-clearance of that measure cannot be sent to the Justice Department until after the bill becomes law.

The 60-day clock on the pre-clearance application should begin soon for SB 374, however. The idea for the legislation came up when Susan Ryan, the school board member representing the 8th District, resigned only months after taking office, leaving most of the four-year term left for that seat. Since no local legislation had been drafted regarding such a vacancy, the generic state law applies.

State law calls for a special election if more than two years and three months are left in the term, but that election is held at the same time as the next general election. That means in the November 2004 election, a person would be elected to fill the two years left on the District 8 post, replacing the person appointed by the board to serve in the interim.

Residents and local legislators were disappointed to hear that the state law calls for an appointee n as opposed to a duly-elected board member n to serve for nearly two years on the board before being replaced.

State Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, was happy to see the bill approved and have the way cleared for a special election in this situation and others that may come up in the future.

"I was glad to see that it passed," said Barnes, who is a former school board member. "Any time we can put the choice of who will represent people into the hands of the people instead of the politicians, we're doing good."

Though the county is still waiting on Justice Department approval for the school board special election law to officially take effect, Lawson has tentatively set the date of the District 8 special election for Sept. 16. That would also be the date of the special election for Lawson's successor as probate court judge, since the judge is retiring later this year.