Nonpartisan elections moved a step closer Tuesday when the Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved them for several local offices.
The House lawmakers approved four bills that included nonpartisan elections for the new consolidated Macon-Bibb County governments, the Bibb County Board of Elections and the Macon Water Authority.
They also included the coroner, Probate Judge, Civil Court Judge and State Court Solicitor.
The legislation now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for consideration. If he signs them into law, they'll head to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will determine if the law complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Two weeks ago, the Senate approved nonpartisan elections for those positions.
In both chambers, Republicans largely supported the measures while Democrats opposed them.
During Tuesday's House debate, Macon Democrat Nikki Randall called the nonpartisan efforts a "bait and switch" tactic because the consolidation plan approved by voters last year stipulated there would be partisan elections for the mayor and commission members.
"When I went before the people and told them what this measure was, I did not lie to them," Randall said. "It was in black and white, but now it's been changed, and it was beyond my control."
Rep. James Beverly, another Macon Democrat, also expressed disappointment in the change.
Beverly said the legislation that allowed a vote on consolidation would not have gotten unanimous approval for the legislative delegation if nonpartisan elections had been included.
"As a matter of fact, at one point, we said, 'look we're not going to be a part of this if it's not a partisan election,'" Beverly said.
Macon Republican Allen Peake pushed the nonpartisan legislation through the House. He did so, Peake said, after conducting a poll of Macon and Bibb County voters who overwhelmingly said they wanted nonpartisan elections.
"It's time to move past partisan politics and that is crucial for our community to move forward," Peake said.
Peake also noted that state lawmakers change local government charters often.
"I mean we make changes to the charter every year," Peake said. "We are only responding to what the citizens reqested of us, which is to put into legislation to go from partisan to nonpartisan."
Randall said the Justice Department might not favor the change.
"I think the Department of Justice will see this as a red flag," Randall said. "I'm sure I'll be contacted soon."
The House vote on nonpartisan elections for the new consolidated government was 111 to 64. It was 110 to 62 for the judges, coroner and solicitor. The Water Authority vote was 108 to 66, and school board vote was 114 to 61.
Peake said he expects Gov. Deal to sign the nonpartisan bills in a few days. Once done, Peake said the Justice Department has 60 days to look them over.