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Voter Apathy & Suppression
at the Polls Loses Mayoral Race for Willie Burns of Washington, Georgia

by Amanda Smith

Washington, Georgia Mayoral Election Illustrates
Black Voter Apathy & Voter Suppression

In a small Georgia town of just 4,000 residents, polarization at the election polls backfired as Mayor Willie Burns, who had served two terms as mayor, was defeated by white Republican candidate Ames Barnett. 35 year old Barnett is the owner of a $13 million construction business and his family has lived in Washington for six generations. The race for a part time position that only pays $600 a month divided the small community along race lines and voter apathy by the African American residents was glaringly apparent when the votes were tallied on November 9, 2011.

A Georgia State Trooper for 30 years, Burns also provided security for two Georgia governors and upon retirement, decided to run for mayor. In 2003, he was elected as the first and only black mayor in Washington, Georgia’s 231 year history and was reelected to the position in 2007. His success in securing two terms as mayor was largely due to garnering the African American vote during his campaigns and the numbers suggest that this election should have been no different than the previous ones.

At election time, there were a total of 2,317 eligible voters -- 1,338 black, 977 white and 2 Asians. 70% of total registered voters turned out at the polls and of the over 1,300 registered black voters, only 747 voted for Willie Burns. Barnett received 837 votes, defeating Burns by less than 100 votes. GABEO (Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials) President Tyrone Brooks is disturbed by the clear indication of voter apathy in the election. "We elected Willie Burns as mayor of Washington after 30 years of faithful service with the state patrol and we reelected him in 2007 because he was doing such a good job," said Brooks. "I was shocked when we received the news on November 9th that he had lost by less than 100 votes. Black laziness and apathy at the polls is still very prevalent - I see it as I travel all over the country - Washington, Georgia is simply a reflection of this," he continued. "The votes were there; blacks have no one to blame but themselves. We have found the enemy and it is US! It is the blacks' responsibility to get out and vote; the African Americans in Washington ought to be ashamed."

Former Mayor Burns also sees other contributing factors to the election results on November 9, 2011. "I'm not nearly as concerned about my defeat in the election as I am about the black voter suppression that was going on at the polls," said Burns. "A representative of the Secretary of State's office came to Washington three times and met with key white leaders in town to address this upcoming municipal election and I believe that the registrar's office was prepped as a way to get a white mayor in office," he continued. "Some examples of voter suppression that I know occurred were denying absentee ballots that would normally have been counted; telling would-be voters that they could not vote with an expired license (only a picture ID is needed); and refusing voters whose address on their utility bill was different from that on their driver's license." When asked if he would run again, Burns that he would not, "but I will be heavily involved in picking the next black mayor of Washington." Burns is President of the Georgia Conference of Black Mayors, Inc., a nonprofit organization established in 1986 to promote networking, connect resources and build relationships for the 50 Georgia communities under the leadership of black mayors.

 

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Willie Burns
Willie Burns