City officials in Daphne are continuing to take heat over a redistricting plan and a consolidation of polling places approved earlier this year that some activists say could dilute black voters’ influence in municipal elections.
Now, ahead of an Aug. 23 election, some are placing even more scrutiny on the changes, while others believe the uproar is being used as a campaign tool.
Either way, the Daphne City Council’s decisions have recently garnered national attention as one of several changes in this and other states that would have required federal preclearance before the the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee president Willie Williams had concerns with the city’s plan for redistricting before it was finalized. Now, he’s raising the issue as a candidate for the District 1 City Council seat — currently held by the council’s only black member, Tommie Conaway
“These changes would have never passed under Section 5 preclearance. We’ve told them this was not going to work because it has disenfranchised people,” Williams said. “They need to have voting precincts in all seven districts. We’ve been working with some of the top voting rights organizations, and what they’re telling Daphne is, ‘this is wrong.’”
Williams was referring to organizations like the Voting Rights Institute of the Georgetown University Law Center, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, which have all called for some sort of remedy to the situation.
However, Conaway has previously denied the existence of “a racial problem” in Daphne, and has chalked up some of the attention the issue has gotten to Williams and his current campaign for City Council.
“First of all, race was never the issue,” Conaway told Lagniappe this week. “We decided to consolidate the polls after we did our redistricting, and that was the only reason for the consolidation of the polls.”
In March, the Daphne council approved a redistricting plan to help the city more equitably distribute its roughly 21,700 residents throughout the city’s seven council districts with the goal of averaging 3,104 voters in each district.
At the same meeting, though, the council voted to eliminate three of the five municipal polling locations, consolidating voters in Districts 1-5 to the Daphne Civic Center and those in Districts 6-7 to Trojan Hall at Daphne High School.
Originally, Conaway was one of the three votes opposing the council’s decision to close three of its polling locations on March 21, joining councilmen John Lake and Pat Rudicell. However, at the time Conaway said she preferred having just one polling location at the Daphne Civic Center rather than two.
On Monday, Conaway said having one polling location would have helped eliminate confusion between polling places used in county, state and federal elections that are facilitated by Baldwin County and the local elections overseen by the city of Daphne.
She also cited potential “health issues” at a previous polling location in District 3 — a Daphne fire station — that has been undergoing renovations. Other city officials have also said some of the previous polling locations lacked protections from inclement weather.
Just a month after they were approved, though, those changes became a subject of security for the Voting Rights Institute.
In a letter to the City Council, Mayor Dane Haygood and the Department of Justice, the VRI claimed city officials failed to properly weigh the impact the consolidation of voting precincts would have on black voters before they were approved — the type of analysis Williams said would have previously been required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
“We are concerned that these actions will provide minorities with less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process, and call upon the Department of Justice to investigate these matters without delay,” VRI executive director J. Gerald Hebert wrote. “The new polling location for Districts 1 and 3 at the Daphne Civic Center is more than two miles away from the old location in [District] 1. Meanwhile, residents of Daphne’s least racially diverse districts will continue to vote at their existing location.”
There has been no official confirmation of any DOJ investigation into the changes in Daphne, and when asked this week, Conaway again said city leaders “haven’t heard anything” about it.
“As far as we’re concerned, the election will be held as scheduled on Aug. 23,” she added.
In the meantime, Williams said some advocates were considering seeking some kind of emergency injunction to prevent what he described as “overt” attempts to “dilute the black vote.”
However, that still isn’t Williams’ only concern. Though the mayor in Daphne is elected at large, Williams said the City Council is a “single-member district form of government.” Because of that, he said the city should have polling places in all seven of its city council districts.
“They’ve given all kinds of excuses and the folks are tired of it. There’s people in the Park City community that are really upset,” Williams said. “We’ve been knocking on doors because of the campaign and there are still people that ain’t really comprehending the redistricting plan.”