Fair elections fall in one lap

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Most citizens in Demopolis have no idea why a number of the front-page headlines in this newspaper have recently included the words “Justice Department.” That, in itself, is unfortunate.

Even more unfortunate is that the one government entity charged with ensuring fair elections — the U.S. Department of Justice — has sent voters, candidates and city officials on a month-long trail of havoc.

To help many understand, the Department of Justice must approve any changes in a municipality’s voting districts. After the 2000 Census, Demopolis officials worked to even the number of voters in each council district. In the previous 10 years, one district in particular had lost a number of voters.

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The Voting Rights Act put in place a system that ensures the make up of districts is representative of the racial make up of a community. In the case of Demopolis, most believe the new district lines are fair.

At issue is City Council District 3, which is considered this city’s “swing district.” With two majority African-American districts and two majority white districts, District 3 has a near even amount of whites and blacks. That means either a white or black candidate could be elected, thus changing the composition of the city council.

Dr. William Stewart, professor emeritus of the University of Alabama’s political science department, has worked with numerous municipalities across this state in the redistricting process. He also helped redraw the new lines for the city of Demopolis.

On more than one occasion, Stewart has received phone calls from the Department of Justice asking him about the new districts, which had not been approved as of late Tuesday evening.

“I think it’s really unfortunate what they’re doing to Demopolis,” Stewart said of the federal government’s delay in approving the new districts. “Demopolis has been so fortunate to have a good government with good racial relations, and I’d hate to see the bureaucracy of the federal government ruin that.”

By ruin, Stewart means the impact the DoJ’s delay in approval of the districts could have on the planned Aug. 24 municipal elections. If the federal government were to deny the new districts — which could have happened late Tuesday night — every voter in Demopolis will suffer.

For starters, the legality of an Aug. 24 election would be questioned, and there’s every possibility that we’d be forced to hold another $15,000 election — at the cost of the taxpayers.

Secondly, a denial of the district lines would mean the city would be forced to draw yet another map of the city, publicize that map, and then resend the information to the DoJ, where it would be forced to wait even longer for approval.

Obviously, the Voting Rights Act is important to every city in this nation. It’s even more important to this region of the United States because that piece of legislation came after Bloody Sunday in neighboring Selma.

If our district lines are denied, then we must regroup, work together as a city, and find a resolution that appeases everyone — including the federal government. What we cannot do is enter into a mode of panic, worrying about whether or not we’ll have a city government. Until this problem is resolved, the current council and mayor will continue serving.

If our district lines are approved, then we must move on with hosting a viable campaign season for the next three weeks. More importantly, voters must educate themselves on the field of candidates and pick the best people to lead our city for the next four years.