COVINGTON -- The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is not expected to affect voters but should make the process of adjusting precinct lines more efficient for local elections officials.
"Based on my understanding of what I read in the (newspaper) today, the decision will have an impact for the good for us," said Hugh Steele, chairman of Newton County's Board of Elections. "It will save us a good deal of correspondence with the (U.S.) Department of Justice, particularly with those changes we need to make that have no real bearing on affecting voters."
For example, he said, sometimes voting precincts will be located in a church and that church will decide it can no longer accommodate the number of voters. In that case, the BOE will need to move the precinct to another location.
"Until now, if we had to change a precinct, we had to get prior approval from the Department of Justice and now we will no longer have to get that approval," Steele said.
He said he expects this issue to be discussed at the next Board of Elections meeting scheduled at 2 p.m. on Monday, July 8. The meeting will be held in the county's Administration Building, 1113 Usher St., Suite 103.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the formula used in the landmark Voting Rights Act to determine which states must have federal approval before changing the way they hold elections because of their history of voter discrimination. The 5-4 majority opinion of the court held the provision is unconstitutional because it does not account for racial progress made in those states which are primarily in the South, including Georgia -- over the past 40 years.
With this requirement now removed, local elections officials can make decisions about changing precinct locations or changing precinct lines -- as was done a few years ago for the Brick Store precinct in eastern Newton County -- without having to first get approval from the Department of Justice, a process that could take several months.
Donna Morrison, director of Newton County's Board of Elections, said the decision should not result in any changes in the way that voting precincts are amended, but should shorten the process.
Morrison said that any time the BOE is considering a change to a voting location, it must first advertise its intentions in the local newspaper. Anyone with any objections or concerns must submit those in writing to the elections office. A hearing will then be held for those objections to be heard. After taking those concerns into consideration, Morrison said, the plans for the precinct change would then be submitted in writing to the Justice Department for pre-clearance.
"Getting approval for any changes from the Department of Justice takes at least 60 days at the very minimum," she said. "If they call with any questions about the submission at any point during that 60-day window, the time clock starts all over again, so it can take 60 to 90 days or more. Any time we are planning to do any change, we certainly want to give ourselves plenty of time."
Throughout this process, the BOE works closely with the County Attorney's Office to make sure that all the DOJ requirements are met.
While the public notification process will not change, the elections office will no longer need to receive approval from the federal government before implementing any changes to precinct locations.
"It will most definitely save scrutiny, but it will not change the fact that when we do have changes to voting precincts that we would certainly consider first and foremost the convenience to the voters," Morrison said.
She said she is not aware of any precinct changes under consideration currently. Anyone who has any questions is invited to contact the elections office at 770-784-2055.