District lines won’t change for March primaries
Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Despite pending redistricting, Pike County voters will cast their ballots in existing district lines for the upcoming March 13 party primaries.
Probate Judge Wes Allen said on Wednesday he intends to conduct the upcoming primary elections for Pike County Commission and Pike County Board of Education under the existing districting plan since new districts have yet to receive final approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We cannot conduct the primary election under a districting plan that has not been pre-cleared by the Department of Justice without violating federal law,” Allen said. “Such a course would subject the county to litigation in federal court.”
Prompting the decision are the impending deadlines for conducting the election, which include having absentee ballots ready for the public by Feb. 2. Without final approval of election lines – which may not be received until March 11 – Allen said he and other election officials cannot move forward with preparations and he cannot meet the legally mandated election deadlines unless the election is held in the current districts.
“It’s a quandary,” he said Wednesday. “We’re in a tough spot because a decision has to be made if we’re going to hold an election.”
Allen sought an opinion on the issue from Attorney General Luther Strange on Tuesday.
In his letter to
the Attorney General, Allen outlined the key issues at play in the need to determine how to proceed with elections. The Pike County Board of Education approved its new district lines on Aug. 29, 2011, and the Pike County Commission approved its lines on Sept. 12, 2011. The plans were sent to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice for review on Nov. 1, 2011. When the two agencies learned the proposed districting plans had been rejected due to errors in census data, the governing bodies had to re-draw their single member districts. Both groups adopted new districts on Jan. 3 and those plans were sent to the Department of Justice on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11.
“The Department of Justice has up to 60 days to approve the plans,” Allen said in his letter. “That means pre-clearance may not be received until March 11, only two days prior to the primary election.”
The Attorney General’s Office shared three other rulings that set precedence in this case, including 2004 elections in Tuscaloosa County and 2002 elections in Baldwin County. In both those cases, primary elections and primary runoffs were held in existing districts and the general elections were held in new, or redrawn, districts. In addition, Allen said, both Limestone and Perry counties are dealing with similar issues at this time. In Limestone County, primary elections will proceed in current districts and new districts will be implemented for the November general election.
“After receiving our AG opinion, I discussed this situation with the Board of Supervisors – Sheriff Russell Thomas and Circuit Clerk Jamie Scarbrough. We are all in agreement that we must uphold the law and conduct this election under our current districting plan,” Allen said.
Allen is required to provide a list of qualified voters to the Absentee Election Manager by Jan. 30 and that list needs to be broken into proper districts. “Because a voter casts a ballot only for a county commission or school board candidate that lives in the same election district in which the voter lives, it is important that each voter gets a ballot that has the appropriate candidates on it,” Allen said. “The Pike County Board of Registrars assigns each registered voter to an election district before the Feb. 2 deadline for making absentee ballots available … Ballots are distributed to registered voters based on where they live. And ballots have to be printed before they can be distributed and that takes time.”
As for the candidates who already have qualified for office, Allen said the change in districts should not affect their qualifications. “I’ve checked with the party officials, and they believe that all the candidates who have qualified in the current districts also will be qualified in the (proposed) new districts once they are approved,” Allen said.
Jerry Williams, chairman of the Democratic Party in Pike County, said Wednesday that he expects every district will be affected by the new lines. “There were several hundred people shuffled into different districts.”
And, he said, with district lines changing between the primary and general elections, candidates will face some challenges. “They will have to work in the general election to meet a new group of people and they will lose some who may have voted for them in the primaries.”
Allen said while the situation is not ideal, it is the best course of action for the county and the voters. “If we could have obtained pre-clearance of the new district lines from DOJ earlier, then it would have been no problem to conduct elections under the new districting plans,” Allen said.