The deadline for federal authorities to stop controversial changes to election law in Macon and Bibb County has been greatly extended, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the community's most important local election in decades.
In February, Democrats cried foul when the GOP-controlled legislature voted to make most local elections in Macon-Bibb nonpartisan, a change they say will help Republicans win seats in the new consolidated city-county government that takes control in 2014.
At the same time, legislators moved the election from November to July, when a party primary would normally be held in a partisan election. Democrats say that will disenfranchise minority, Democratic-leaning voters who historically turn out in much greater numbers for November elections.
The Voting Rights Act gives the federal government 60 days in which to block changes to local election procedure, and that original deadline would have expired this past weekend. However, because state lawmakers made additional minor tweaks to Macon-Bibb elections in March on the last day of their 2013 session, the clock has effectively been reset.
As a result, it may not be certain whether the elections for the new consolidated government are partisan or nonpartisan until June 2, less than a month before early voting begins.
State Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who led the push for nonpartisan elections, said he’s disappointed by the delay. "It may create some angst and confusion for some of the candidates, and it may not be clear to folks who’s running and in what races," he said.
Former Macon mayor and current candidate for the new city-county mayor position C. Jack Ellis said he’ll be calling himself a "proud Democrat" no matter what the feds do. "We do believe that there are reasons to for them to intervene in this one," Ellis said, "but should they decide otherwise, we would not be challenging [the election law changes] beyond that and we will continue to run our campaign."
Election officials say they are assuming there will be no party identifiers on the ballot until they hear otherwise.