Judges to hear district voting appeal Wednesday

The Fayette County Board of Commissioners (BOC) and the Fayette County Board of Education (BOE) on Dec. 10 will square-off against the Georgia Conference of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) at the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The BOC and BOE are appealing the March decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten that mandated district voting in Fayette County. Fayette County held its first district voting elections in November.

The cases will be heard by a three-judge panel that includes 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles R. Wilson, appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1999, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, appointed to the court by President Barack Obama in 2014, and U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Chief Judge Anne C. Conway.

For their part, the BOC maintained that in their response brief, the NAACP mostly parrots the District Court’s decision, rarely refuting county defendants’ arguments explaining why Judge Batten’s decision should be reversed.

Like the District Court, the NAACP completely ignores the boundary segment analysis which shows that, without exception, every single precinct split on the approved map was based on racial considerations, the BOC said.

Among its arguments, the BOE in its brief said plaintiff’s contention that the BOE appeal must fail because BOE failed to litigate is baseless, that a geographically-compact majority African-American district cannot be drawn in Fayette, that the plan deliberately under-populated District 5 and deliberately over-populated other districts to construct a majority “any part black” voter age population district and that the district court could not properly issue a summary judgment given numerous disputed questions of fact pertaining to the drawing of a majority-minority district.

Plaintiffs in the case include the NAACP and a number of Fayette County residents. Plaintiffs in their summary of the argument state that Batten’s court held that the at-large electoral method used by the BOC and BOE results in improper vote dilution and recognized that, though black voters comprise 20 percent of the voting age population, they are geographically compact in the northern part of the county, and are politically cohesive.

Fayette’s (prior) at-large electoral method, in combination with racially-polarized voting, denies them the opportunity to participate equally in the political process and elect responsive elected officials, the NAACP lawsuit said. As the District Court recognized, no black candidate has ever been elected to the BOC or BOE, plaintiffs said.

Pertaining to the BOE, plaintiffs maintain that it relied entirely on the BOC arguments, adding that the BOE’s failure to litigate any aspect of this case after the settlement attempts with plaintiffs were unsuccessful is fatal to its appeal.

Under district voting, residents can only vote for the commission and board of education post associated with the district in which they live. Under the county’s previous at-large voting system, voters could cast a ballot on all five posts for both governing bodies.

The district voting ruling from Judge Batten in early 2014 concluded a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, which argued that black residents were unable to elect “the candidate of their choice” in previous county elections. The lawsuit argued that Fayette’s at-large voting format prevented any black candidate from winning election to the county commission or the board of education.

Batten instituted a district voting map that includes a specially-carved 5th District, drawn to include a voting age population consisting of more than 50 percent black voters.

While the district voting map wasn’t finalized until late February, Batten in May 2013 issued an order declaring district voting the law of the land in Fayette County.

One of the underlying facts needed to be proven in the lawsuit was that the county’s district voting format presented black candidates from getting elected to office. The lawsuit specifically referred to the fact that no black resident had ever been elected to either the BOC or BOE.

The 2014 general election in November saw Democratic District 5 school board incumbent Leonard Presberg, who is white, defeating white Republican challenger Dean Dutton, and Democratic challenger Pota Coston, who is African-American, defeating white Republican incumbent Allen McCarty in the District 5 Fayette County Commission race.

Fayette County Branch NAACP President John Jones in a Dec. 2 letter to The Citizen said, “When Fayette County voters took to the polls on Nov. 4, two amazing things happened. First, voter turnout was higher in Fayette County than anywhere else in Georgia; and second, voters in District 5, the majority-black district, made history by electing their candidate of choice, the first-ever black person, to serve on the County Commission. Voters in District 5 also elected their candidate of choice, a white male, to the school board. So it is long past time for us to move forward, together, as a county.

“The NAACP recently won a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that required Fayette County to conduct its elections for County Commission and school board under a district-based plan. Both bodies previously used at-large voting which has been proven to purposely prevent black voters from electing their candidates of choice. The recent elections clearly reflected the strong desire of Fayette County’s voters to move forward and turn the page on at-large voting,” Jones wrote.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several local residents in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The board of education’s appeal is noteworthy because it initially had voted to settle the district voting lawsuit by adopting its own district voting map. While it was first approved by the court, Judge Batten later overturned the settlement because the county commission, listed as co-defendant in the case, had not approved of the settlement.