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Consolidation: Experts say dilution of black voting strength unlikely in consolidated government

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series on consolidation.

ALBANY -- While recent discussion of consolidating the Albany and Dougherty County governments has largely centered on the financial pros and cons of the merger, there are rumblings throughout the city's majority black population that the move is little more than a ploy to dilute black voting strength and put the governing power back into the hands of the white establishment.

While some in the community shrug the suggestion off as another example of using the race card in lieu of an argument, race has crept into the discussion as leaders from both the county and city debate a charter that would unify all residents of the city and county under one government.

Charles Bullock, a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia and one of the nation's foremost experts on Southern politics, said it's interesting that Albany and Dougherty County -- a community with a countywide 60 percent minority population -- would think that dilution of minority voting strength could be a significant factor in a new government.

"You have to realize that Albany-Dougherty County is rather unique in the sense that you only have one incorporated city in Albany, and that the vast majority of the population, which itself is majority black, lives in the city," Bullock said. "Over the years, black voting strength has grown tremendously, and I don't see any feasible way to alter that in any significant manner and it still pass muster at the Justice

department."

The final say rests, quite simply, with the proposed voting districts.

Five of the eight proposed districts contain an overwhelmingly black majority, and another has only a 4 percent difference.

Currently, black men and women registered to vote in Dougherty

County enjoy a 63-37 percent majority over white voters, according to a November 2009 voting digest obtained from voting officials.

Looking at the numbers, County Commission District 3 currently has the highest percentage of black voters at 93 percent. District 2 is next with 85 percent, followed by District 5 at 84 percent. District 6 is the most evenly dispersed at 66 percent, while Districts 1 and 4 are the only two with white majorities of voters, with District 1 62 percent white and District 4 66 percent white.

District 1 does have the population advantage on each of the other districts with 11,377 total registered voters -- 7,042 of those being white. The voters, both white and black, in that one district make up 23 percent of the entire number of registered voters countywide.

In Albany, black registered voters comprise 67 percent of total

registered voters. Ward 6 has the highest percentage of black voters at 95 percent, with Ward 1 next at 88 percent, Ward 2 at 74 percent, Ward 3 at 73 percent, Ward 4 at 56 percent and Ward 5 at 36 percent.

Ward 4 has the highest number of registered voters, at 8,724, and mirrors the county's portion of the total pie at 22 percent.

Of the total number of registered voters in the city, 945 are listed as "other," according to the voting digest. Countywide that number grows to 1,223.

When comparing the number of registered voters for both the city and the county against the total number of residents as compiled by the U.S. Census in 2000, the disparity is significant.

For blacks, 52 percent of their total population in Dougherty County are registered voters. In the city, that number dips to 51 percent.

By comparison, 48 percent of the total number of whites are registered to vote. That number is the same for white residents of the city.

What may be more significant is the apparent declining number of minority voters who actually cast a ballot. As illustrated by the recent Ward 3 City Commission election, only 12 percent of voters cast ballots during the three-week period prior to election and on election day itself.

That number is significantly less than the turnout in the same commission race four years earlier, which resulted in a 23 percent turnout and 1,198 votes cast.

"The chance that minorities will be adversely affected in terms of their political voting strength by consolidating the city and county, in Albany's case, is a non-issue I believe," Bullock said. "Because so many minorities live in the city, and the city has so much more population over the county, the effect would likely be minimal."

That notion hasn't kept local politicians from voicing their opinions about race and the consolidation movement.

"Consolidation is about a (white) power structure not wanting to give up its power," Albany Mayor Willie Adams was quoted in The Herald as saying during consolidation discussions in 2007. "And now that the group that has not held power before has attained a measure of power, (blacks) don't want ... to jeopardize it."

When asked to qualify his comments from two years ago, Adams -- the city's first black mayor -- quieted the racial undertones of the consolidation effort.

"I don't generally like to refer to those in power based on their race," he said. "I just said that those in power, be it black or white, traditionally fight to keep it, while whomever the opposition may be will push to get it.

"I'm sure that consolidation would not dilute minority voting strength because, simply put, African-Americans are the majority in this county. The real issue if this goes to a referendum will be how to get as many people registered to vote, black and white, as possible and then get them to the polls so that it will be a fair measure of what the majority of the people want."

While Adams has been careful not to reveal his personal feelings on consolidation, he is now promoting discussions in support of a referendum that would give the people of Albany and Dougherty County the right to vote on a merger.

Some on the commission have been less coy about their feelings.

"They (those pushing for consolidation) want to take back over, from the Caucasian side, and operate the county. It's just that simple. That's why I'm firmly against consolidation," Ward 6 Commissioner Tommie Postell said at a recent Commission work session.

That sentiment has been echoed at listening sessions sponsored by state Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, and County Commissioner Gloria Gaines, to the point that many in the community are asking elected officials not only to keep a referendum from happening by their own hands, but to send letters to the General Assembly urging them to kill a proposed consolidation charter that's currently sitting in the well of the State Senate.

It's an issue that isn't unique to Albany and Dougherty County.

Fred Russell, administrator of Augusta-Richmond County, said that their original consolidation plan -- which was authored and approved by state officials -- was denied by the U.S. Department of Justice because the districts weren't fair to minorities. After tweaking the plan and districts, it passed with Justice approval.

"They solved it rather simply," he said. "We have 10 districts. Five are predominately white and five are predominately black, and that was it. There was no rocket science behind it. They just drew lines that would be most fair to everyone, regardless of race."

Race, too, was an issue in Athens-Clarke County, which led to the formation of super districts -- districts comprising smaller districts -- which was approved by DOJ as well.

For comparison, Athens-Clarke has two black commissioners out of 10 with a white female mayor; Augusta-Richmond has five black commissioners with a white male mayor, and Columbus-Muscogee County has three black commissioners with a white mayor.