After over 90 minutes of executive session on Thursday afternoon, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue an appeal to Federal District Court Judge Timothy Batten, Sr.’s ruling to abandon at-large voting methods in favor of district voting.
Plaintiffs, the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, and black registered voters who reside in Fayette County, filed this lawsuit in August 2011, saying that the at-large voting method disenfranchised minorities and prevented them from selecting candidates of their choosing. At least since 1993, Plaintiffs and other members of the community have advocated for the establishment of district-based voting under which Fayette County would be divided into equally-sized districts with each district electing a representative of their choice to the Board of Commissioners or Board of Education.
The judge issued an 81-page ruling that finds that, through the use of the at-large voting process, the Fayette County Commission and School Board violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Batten found that although black residents comprise 20 percent of Fayette County, are geographically concentrated in the county, and consistently vote together for Board of Commissioners and Board of Education candidates, no black candidate has ever been elected to either of these boards in the county’s 191-year history.
“As the court recognized today, Fayette County’s at-large election method violates the Voting Rights Act because it is a structural wall of exclusion that guarantees that black voters, despite having run for office in election after election, cannot elect their candidates of choice,” said Ryan Haygood, Director of the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a leading civil rights law firm that has been a separate entity from the NAACP since 1957. “Today’s ruling provides an opportunity for greater inclusion, fairness, and accountability in Fayette County’s political process through district-based voting.”
Because black-preferred candidates are not meaningfully supported by white voters, who comprise 70 percent of Fayette County’s population, those candidates cannot win a county-wide election under the current electoral system.
A black candidate, for example, recently lost a Fayette County Board of Education election after receiving 99 percent support from black voters, but securing only 15 percent from white voters. In another recent election, three Republican candidates ran for a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners, including two black candidates and one white candidate.
In the end, the white candidate defeated all black candidates without a runoff.
The federal court found that at-large voting in Fayette weakens the voting strength of black voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Widely considered the crown jewel of American democracy, the Voting Rights Act is the most effective tool for protecting voters of color against methods of election, such as at-large voting, that dilute the voting strength of communities of color. Until today’s ruling, Fayette County was one of only twenty districts of the 180 school districts in Georgia with a completely at-large electoral scheme.
Thus far, it’s estimated the commission has spent approximately $300,000 on the suit.
The court’s ruling requires the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education to develop a district-based remedial plan that contains at least one district in which black voters comprise a majority of the voting-age population by June 25, 2013.
“There was rigorous debate around the issue,” said chairman Steve Brown. “Ultimately, the board decided at this point, with some of the issues and the district map, it was time to authorize our attorneys to go for the appeal.”
It is still unknown if the board of education will also appeal the decision.
“I’ve had some personal discussions with at least two board members,” added Brown. “I even offered to attend one of their executive sessions to talk about the decision. Essentially, the board of commissioners and board of education haven’t been running on the same track on this issue. I can say this whole thing will make an interesting chapter in an interesting book.”
Ryan Haygood, director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, called the commission’s decision to appeal “unfortunate on two levels”.
“One, it doesn’t reflect where people in the county are on the subject of district voting. They not longer want to continue with this practice that a federal court has deemed to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“Second, they are out of touch with the rest of the country, which has twice elected an African-American to the most powerful position in the country.”
Haygood added that in nearly 200 years the board of education and the board of commissioners has not integrated their boards with people of color.
He called the county’s appeal a “losing effort. In my opinion as an attorney, the judge gave them an incredibly thoughtful and well supported opinion based on circuit law. The grounds for an appeal are hollow.”
He also noted that the $300,000 already spent on the case by the county, and any future cost, could have been put to better use retaining teachers, firefighters and keeping schools open and suggested that the community hold them accountable for the expense. Haygood also pointed to the fact that most of the state - if not the country - already have district voting.
“This decision is totally against trend and what people want. We have law, history and common sense on our side and we will continue this with confidence in the inevitable decision. They are pushing an appeal that is doomed to fail,” said Haygood.