Tuesday afternoon, district voting became the law of the land in Fayette County by decree of a U.S. District Judge, replacing the county’s at-large voting format with a new process that will allow residents to vote for just one of the five members on both the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education.
Under at-large voting, struck down by the court, Fayette voters had the luxury of casting a ballot for all five members on each governing body.
The new district map and district voting process ordered by the court will be used for this year’s elections. Qualifying for office runs March 3 through 7 in advance of the May 20 primary and the Nov. 4 general election.
The new voting map includes a specially drawn majority-minority district comprised of 50.13 percent black voting age population designed to virtually guarantee that a black candidate will be selected for that post on both the board of education and the county commission.
The new map and the majority-minority 5th District are the result of a voting rights lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and several individual county residents.
Fayette County NAACP President John Jones called the court’s decision “a historic win-win for all Fayette County citizens.”
Jones noted that candidates in all five districts will benefit because they will only have to campaign within their district instead of on a countywide basis.
“So people of all races can celebrate this victory because every candidate will have a more equal opportunity to get elected to the county commission or school board,” Jones wrote in a press release.
The suit claimed that Fayette’s at-large voting system — which allowed residents to vote on all five seats for the board of education and the county commission — violated Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act because it prevented black voters from “electing the candidate of their choosing.”
The remedy imposed by the court forces a switch to district voting, which will allow residents to vote for only one of the five seats on both governing bodies.
The new map, in order to create the majority-minority 5th District, splits nine of the county’s 36 voting precincts. It stretches from an area of East Fayetteville into part of north Fayetteville, extending north into a significant chunk of unincorporated Fayette County before heading east and taking part of north Tyrone as well.
In the process, the new 1st District keeps the remaining edge of unincorporated Fayette County along the Fayette-Fulton County border while including the remainder of Tyrone and a sizable chunk of northeast Peachtree City along with part of the unincorporated county straddling Ga. Highway 54.
In May, Judge Timothy C. Batten ruled in the NAACP’s favor, pointing to the fact that no black person has ever been elected to either governing body was a major sign that at-large voting discriminated against black voters.
Batten in his Feb. 18 order noted that the shape of District 5 “is somewhat irregular” but argues such is not surprising “given the irregularity of the U.S. Census blocks that comprise it and the goal of creating a majority-minority district.”
“Consequently, neither the circumstantial nor the direct evidence in this case suggests that strict-scrutiny review is appropriate or that district 5 is an impermissible racial gerrymander,” Batten wrote.
Jones in the press release takes credit for the NAACP’s “all out effort to bring district voting to Fayette County.”
The NAACP contends that district voting will help Fayette overcome “proven patterns of racial bloc voting made worse by an at-large voting system.”
“With district voting, minorities residing in a geographically compact majority/minority district will now have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice,” the press release stated.
At Tuesday’s court hearing, Batten denied a request from the NAACP to have the incumbent designation removed from the ballot in a bid to take that advantage away from district 5 school board incumbent Leonard Presberg and district 5 county commission incumbent Allen McCarty.
The NAACP previously asked the court to draw district 5 so it would not include either Presberg or McCarty in an effort to provide an easier go for candidates seeking the two district 5 seats. Batten declined to do so, as Presberg and McCarty’s homes remained in district 5 under the court-approved map.
Batten also denied a request from NAACP to extend the March 3-7 qualifying period to give potential district 5 candidates more time to discern whether they live in the district or not and to file the necessary, complicated paperwork to be listed on the ballot.
Representing the county commission, attorney Ann Lewis argued an extension wasn’t necessary because qualifying is a simple process involving one document declaring candidacy and one check, referring to payment of the qualifying fee.
The NAACP also asked the court to reduce the number of signatures required for a candidate to qualify as a pauper, arguing that there would not be enough time for the candidates to meet the threshold set by state law: one-half of 1 percent of the voters who resided in the district as of the previous election. Batten denied that request as well.
Batten’s order requires that the new district map remain in effect “until the General Assembly of Georgia enacts applicable local legislation.”