Fayette county must end its 191-year-old, at large voting system in favor of district voting to give black residents a better chance of being elected to office, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten ordered Fayette to submit a plan to fix its racially-discriminatory voting structure by June 25. That plan must include the creation of a majority-black district, giving the county a realistic chance of electing its first county-level black official.
“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,” Batten said in the 81-page decision.
The county commission hasn’t ruled out an appeal of Tuesday’s ruling. Chairman Steve Brown said the board plans to meet with its attorney on Thursday to decide what to do next.
“I was kind of surprised by what I consider the subjectiveness of the ruling,” Brown said.
Batten’s ruling caps a two-year court fight over an issue that has hung over Fayette County for decades but has grown more contentious as more black residents have moved into the area. For years, Blacks pushed for district voting, which is favored under the Voting Rights Act. In district voting, candidates are elected by the people in each district not countywide.
“This is a landmark decision in a long battle for fair representation in Fayette County,” said Rep. Virgil Fludd, whose district includes Fayette.
“This important ruling speaks to the way in which at-large voting was a structural wall of exclusion for black voters for 191 years,” said Ryan Haygood, a director of the political participation group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed the suit. “The county now has an opportunity to remedy that unfortunate history by adopting a plan that includes all voices in Fayette County.”
In August 2011, the NAACP, along with nine black Fayette residents, sued the county commission and the school board over at-large voting, saying it violated portions of the Voting Rights Act.
While the school board worked toward a settlement, the county dug in its heels, spending more than $300,000 fighting to preserve the current voting process.
The county of about 110,000 residents is one of few in the state that elects commissioners and school board members with at-large voting.
Blacks make up 21 percent of the county’s population, but none has ever served on the school board or commission. District voting is responsible for increasing black representation throughout the South in areas where black residents have been historically denied a shot at holding county and statewide seats.
“We’re hopeful the decision will bring an end to Fayette County’s fight to preserve a discriminatory voting system that has cost the county nearly $300,000 and counting to defend,” said John Jones, president of the Fayette NAACP and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Voting rights experts had predicted Tuesday outcome since many challenges like Fayette’s have been lost over the years. Since 1982, virtually all of the more than 100 challenges to at-large systems in Georgia have been successful. Nonetheless, Batten’s ruling surprised Fayette officials and raised questions of the fate of recent school board and commission elections.
“I’m wondering if this is going to lead us into a situation where we have to reissue the elections for the board of commissioners and school board,” Brown said. That would be a huge expense to the county not to mention all the people who ran.”
That’s not likely to happen, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta. McDonald is an attorney who has represented plaintiffs in hundreds of these types of cases.
“It doesn’t undo this past election,” McDonald said. “But they’ll have to implement a remedial plan to hold future elections.”
Brown said Batten conceded in his ruling that he would be hard-pressed to create a majority-minority district — a point the county’s own demographers said would be hard to achieve. At best, a district would yield 47 percent minority voting power, Brown said.
“He (Batten) literally admitted in the opinion that he could not come up with a majority-minority district. It was kind of odd because it’s very clear what you need to prove to show that you have any kind of discriminatory activity. That was never proven.”