NAACP suit alleges white ‘bloc’ votes against ‘every black-preferred candidate’

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A federal lawsuit aimed at eliminating at-large voting for seats on Fayette County’s board of commissioners and the board of education alleges the current system has kept 11 individual plaintiffs from being able to “elect candidates of their choice” to both governing bodies.

The complaint, filed last week by the Fayette County branch and the Georgia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also claims that “non-black members of the electorate have consistently voted as a bloc so as to defeat every black-preferred candidate for the board of commissioners or board of education.” (A pdf file of that lawsuit is attached below.)

The suit seeks to replace the current system for electing representatives to the board of education and board of commissioners. Currently, all residents in Fayette County can vote for all five posts on both governing bodies.

But the NAACP wants the county to switch to a district voting process in which citizens would only be able to vote for one of the five candidates on each board: the one corresponding to their geographic district.

In the complaint, the NAACP focuses on the 2006 special election in which Robert Horgan, a white candidate, won a five-way race for a vacant seat on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners against four other black candidates. That race included two black Democratic candidates, Wendi Felton and Charles Rousseau, along with black Republican candidates Emory Wilkerson and Malcolm Hughes.

The suit does not, however, detail that while 51.7 percent of the voters chose Horgan, the remaining vote was split amongst the four black candidates, with Wilkerson leading the others with 29.05 percent of the vote. Nor does it provide a racial breakdown of how many voters supported which candidate.

The suit also cites an Atlanta newspaper article comment as evidence that Horgan was using racially-loaded language in his campaign. The suit specifically referenced a quote from Horgan in which he said he was running for office “to maintain and preserve the heritage we have in our county.”

The suit also focuses on the 2010 defeat of Laura Burgess, a black college professor who ran as a Democrat for an open seat on the Fayette County Board of Education against Republican challenger Sam Tolbert, a retired college professor. The suit claims that Burgess “received near unanimous support from black voters (99 percent) but less than 20 percent of white votes.”

Burgess only got 31.5 percent of the vote countywide, according to county election results.

While the suit does not touch on the subject, Burgess’ campaign was notable because she never responded to a list of questions submitted to all candidates by The Citizen newspaper, the results of which were subsequently published. Tolbert did respond to The Citizen’s questions, and his answers were published in the paper.

Also not mentioned in the suit, Burgess also declined to return a number of phone calls for comment placed by The Citizen during the campaign, although she spoke with a reporter once in May soon after she qualified.

The board of education and county commission have similar systems for determining the outcome of an election. There are slight differences, however.

The commission consists of three posts limited to three different geographic districts in the county. For those three posts, all candidates for office must live in one of those districts. The remaining two commission posts are “at-large” districts, meaning that there is no requirement for the candidate to live in a specific district.

In any case, all Fayette County voters are allowed to vote on all county commission candidates.

The board of education consists of five posts limited to five different geographic districts in the county, but just like the county commission, all BoE posts can be voted on by all Fayette County voters, regardless of which BoE district they live in.

The lawsuit notes that no black person has ever been elected to the board of education or the county commission.

The only black person ever elected to office in Fayette County history was Magistrate Judge Charles Floyd, the lawsuit notes. Floyd won several elections to the post before his unexpected death last year.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiff Alice Jones told the commissioners at a 2007 meeting that her “majority black neighborhood had been neglected for road and street improvements, green space acquisition, recreational space and other critical services.”

The suit also claims that Jones complained to the commission over several meetings that the county had failed to properly maintain a park in her neighborhood. The suit does not specifically identify that park, nor does it explain whether the park is owned by the county or the subdivision.