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Federal judge orders district voting in Fayette

Fayette County is about to get district voting for all five seats on both the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education.

County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, while expressing his astonishment that the federal judge brushed past a significant legal hurdle to find for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday afternoon that an appeal is not certain.

“We’ll meet with our attorney this week,” Brown said. “If she says she thinks we have a shot on appeal, then we’ll appeal. If she thinks we don’t, then we won’t.”

The net result of the judge’s ruling is almost certain to be that all Fayette residents will lose their right to vote for all five seats on both governing bodies. Instead they will be allowed to vote for only one county commissioner candidate and one board of education candidate.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. has ordered all parties in the case to submit “proposed remedial plans” for the next election cycle “on or before June 25, 2013.”
Batten’s Tuesday order grants summary judgment to the individual plaintiffs in the case along with the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had argued that the county’s district voting process precluded black candidates from winning a seat on the county commission and board of education.

The judge’s order grants the plaintiff’s wish to create a district voting scenario, which is markedly different than the current at-large voting process. Currently, all Fayette voters are allowed to vote on all five seats on the county commission and board of education.

Under district voting, voters will be limited to choosing just one person for each governing body, depending on where each voter lives.

In his order, Batten determined that the current at-large voting process “essentially guarantees that no African-American will be elected to either board.”

While minority candidates have run in recent years for office on both the county commission and board of education, they have been unable to win acceptance of many voters beyond the precincts dominated by African-American electors.

Opponents of district voting have argued that those minority candidates were inferior to the ones who ultimately won office. Opponents also pointed out that Fayette County voters elected and re-elected an African-American lawyer as Magistrate Court Judge: Charles R. Floyd Jr., who remained in office until his untimely death several years ago.

In the order, Batten determines that even though the district voting map presented by the NAACP and the Fayette County Board of Education did not create a single district with a majority population of African-American voters, there was enough for him to determine that district voting was necessary under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Here, it is undisputed that no African-American has ever been elected to the BOC (board of commissioners or BOE (board of education) and that voting in Fayette County is racially polarized in BOC and BOE elections,” Batten wrote. The judge added that the other legal factors weighed in the plaintiffs’ favor, too. “Thus, the Court is satisfied that “under the totality of the circumstances, [African-Americans in Fayette County are] denied meaningful access to the political process on account of race or color.”

The board of education in February 2012 attempted to settle the lawsuit with the NAACP by proposing a new map and adopting district voting. Although the court initially approved that settlement, the approval was rescinded after the Fayette County Commission objected. Batten later indicated that he was unaware the commission had not agreed to that settlement.

While district voting will limit the number of candidates a Fayette voter will be able to cast a ballot for, it will also make it more difficult for all Fayette voters to attempt a recall vote of an elected official. That’s because to recall a candidate, Georgia law requires that the citizens signing the recall petition, and those who are allowed to vote on the matter, be a voter in that particular district.

Fayette has had county-wide voting for most of its history; the county was created by the state legislature in 1821. At-large voting for what were then known as the commissioners of roads and revenues soon followed.

One wild card: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a major voting rights law decision later this year. Some observers believe the court might invalidate parts of that law, including the part that became the basis for the lawsuit that the county just lost.

==========================

ADDED JUNE 3, 2013 —

Corrections

The NAACP has asked that two corrections be made to the May 22 story about district voting.

“First, you write: ‘In the order, Batten determines that even though the district voting map presented by the NAACP and the Fayette County Board of Education did not create a single district with a majority population of African-American voters, there was enough for him to determine that district voting was necessary under the federal Voting Rights Act.’

“On page 42 of the Court’s Order, Judge Batten refers to Plaintiffs’ expert ability to ‘achieve a district that has a voting-age African-American population of 50.22%.’ He goes on to conclude: ‘In sum, because Plaintiffs have shown that the African-American voting-age population is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority-minority district in Fayette County, they have met the first prong of Gingles.’

“Second, you write: ‘One wild card: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a major voting rights law decision later this year. Some observers believe the court might invalidate parts of that law, including the part that became the basis for the lawsuit that the county just lost.’

“You are referring to Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a pending case that challenges Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, http://www.naacpldf.org/update/ldf-defends-section-5-voting-rights-act-u.... Section 5 is a distinct provision of the Voting Rights Act that is not at issue in this case.

“The Court’s Order relies on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to strike down Fayette County’s discriminatory at-large method of electing members to the County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. Section 2 forbids the use of any electoral scheme, such as Fayette County’s at-large method, that “submerges” minority voters in a district — here, the County — that is controlled by the white majority. And Section 2 provides for the type of remedy that the Court’s ruling provides, i.e., a creation of single-member districts to replace an at-large method of election.” — Leah C. Aden, assistant counsel, Political Participation Group, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (www.naacpldf.org).

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