At-large voting loses again

At-large voting loses again

Federal judge rules for NAACP, against BoC, BoE

The special election to fill the District 5 seat on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners will be conducted exactly as the regular election for that seat was done last year.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten Monday granted an injunction ordering the county to use district-only voting and the 2014 black majority district map to select the successor to Pota Coston, who died July 3 after six months in office.

The injunction request was filed last month, days after the Fayette County Board of Elections called for a Sept. 15 special election using at-large voting and the 2012 district map, upon the advice of legal counsel that those were the methods required by law since an appellate court in January reversed Batten’s summary judgment from last year that paved the way for the election that saw Coston become the first black commissioner in the history of Fayette County.

Batten promised a swift ruling at last Thursday’s hearing on the injunction, and county officials have given no indication that the special election cannot go on as scheduled. Qualifying is set to begin Monday.

“At present, there are only four commissioners, which means that important matters can be held up in the event of a tied vote. The Court therefore recognizes the need to conduct a special election without delay and has endeavored to issue a decision as soon as possible to avoid delay in electing a new commissioner,” Batten wrote. “Unfortunately, under the present circumstances, the Court believes there is likely to be voter confusion either way.”

So far one person, Angela Bean, has signaled her intention to run as a Republican in District 5. Her home is located within the judge-ordered district lines.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), which filed the injunction request, issued a statement after the ruling.

“This voting rights case shows that local elections are best served when communities can elect those who represent them and their interests,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “Much is at stake and preserving this progress for the residents of Fayette County is critical to upholding the ideals of and aspirations of our democratic institutions.”

“When the voting structure changed in Fayette County to district-based elections, black voters won their right to elect a representative of their choice to serve them on important local bodies in Fayette County,” says LDF Assistant Counsel Leah Aden, who argued for the plaintiffs at last Thursday’s hearing before Batten. “Today’s decision is another step forward in vindicating the fundamental right to vote of black voters in Fayette County.”

The Board of Commissioners also issued a statement late Monday.

“The county has been notified of Judge Batten’s decision. Obviously it is not what we sought,” stated Chairman Charles Oddo. “Before commenting further, the Board of Commissioners will confer with our attorneys. At this time, we will respectfully decline a more detailed response.”

The board announced a special called meeting for Aug. 5 at 9 a.m. to convene in executive session and discuss “pending litigation.”

After the hearing at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building In Atlanta, Judge Batten brushed aside opposing arguments filed by the commission and the Fayette County Board of Education and found for the NAACP on all issues.

“Recognizing the parties’ interests and the public interest in avoiding voter confusion, the Court does not take this decision lightly. But a decision must be made, and it must be made promptly. For the foregoing reasons, the Court grants Plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction.,” Batten wrote in his order issued Aug. 3.

“The BOC is hereby enjoined from qualifying candidates and conducting the special election and any special runoff for county commissioner post 5 under at-large voting, and the BOC is hereby ordered to qualify candidates and conduct such special election, and any related runoff, using the Remedial Plan adopted by this Court on February 18, 2014, and in a manner consistent with this Court’s orders of February 18, 2014 and February 21, 2014,” Batten wrote.

“[T]he Remedial Plan was the last plan used during an election cycle, and Ms. Coston was elected under that plan. The Court finds this fact significant in evaluating the equities of granting the requested relief,” Batten wrote.

“The Court has determined that Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction should be granted,” Judge Batten wrote.

“Having determined that the injunction should issue, the Court cautions that this is not a permanent injunction, and it should not be viewed by the parties as an indication that the Court will necessarily rule in favor of Plaintiffs at trial,” Batten wrote.

“As with most preliminary injunctions, the parties are still developing the record in this case, and Defendants have raised some issues that could ultimately persuade the Court to decide in their favor at trial even though the Court was not convinced by them for purposes of this motion,” Batten wrote.

[Click here to read the judge’s order.]