Fayette sets at-large election to fill district seat vacated by death

Fayette County will hold a countywide election to fill a district seat vacancy created by the recent death of the county’s first black commissioner.

The county board of elections voted 2-1 Tuesday night to conduct the election on Sept. 15 using at-large voting, believing it had no other choice but to use the county’s former voting system.

An attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing a group of black residents in an ongoing legal battle over Fayette’s elections process, called the decision “an affront to progress” made by last year’s district-voting election of Pota Coston, the first black commissioner in Fayette history. Coston died July 3.

“We’re going to fight this to the end. We’re going to fight for district voting,” said Leah Aden, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the Georgia State Conference of NAACP, the Fayette branch of NAACP and a group of black Fayette residents.

“We’re considering all legal options, including a preliminary injunction that would stop the county from reverting to at-large voting,” Aden told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday. “It would be in the public’s interest to have district-based voting. We’ll prove once again the at-large voting dilutes black vote and it’s discriminatory.”

Tuesday’s decision comes as the county’s ongoing battle over its voting system heats up with renewed animus.

In January, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal overturned U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten’s 2013 order that called for the Fayette to move to district voting because at-large voting violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for a trial. A trial date has not been set.

The appeals court noted Batten arrived at his conclusion against the Fayette Board of Commissioners based on court filings and witness statements given in pre-trial deposition testimony. The appeal court ruled Batten should have resolved the case after a trial that included live testimony.

Fayette’s voting rights dispute began in 2011 after a group of black residents and the NAACP sued the county saying at-large voting kept blacks from being able to get elected to the county commission and school board by diluting the black vote. Blacks comprise 20 percent of Fayette’s population.

The three-member board of elections made the decision Tuesday after listening to residents on both sides of the issue speak.

The board of elections was bound by local law to use at-large voting when dealing with special elections, county attorney Dennis Davenport told the elections board shortly before it voted. Darryl Hicks, the lone black on the elections board, voted against the measure.

“There was really no choice because there are no options out there right now. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for a trial to hear evidence in the case,” Fayette Commission Chairman Charles Oddo told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Neither the lawsuit nor Batten’s 2013 ruling deals with how to handle the replacement of a county official who dies in office. Coston was buried last week after a bout with cancer, six months after taking office.

“We’re now back to where we all started in 2011,” Oddo said.