Fayette County’s fight to preserve its election system has turned into a costly legal battle that voting rights attorneys say Fayette won’t likely win.
Records obtained by The Atanta Journal-Constitution show that in the last 16 months Fayette County has spent more than $225,000 fighting an NAACP lawsuit that seeks to change the way members of the county commission and school board are elected. The objective is to give minority candidates, who have never won a county government seat in Fayette’s 191-year history, a better shot at winning. Some estimate the legal fight could eventually cost Fayette $1 million.
It’s a stunning figure for some taxpayers who think the changes are inevitable and the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“By (the commission’s) own published statements, they have said we’ll have to go to district voting sometime,” said Fayetteville resident Judith Moore. “… So if they know they’ve got to do it sometime, why are they spending all this money now to block it?”
The NAACP contends Fayette’s at-large voting methods, which means some candidates must run countywide for seats on the county commission and school board, has diluted African-American voting strength.
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The county of about 110,000 residents is one of the few in the state that elects commissioners and school board members with at-large voting. A switch to district voting, the NAACP argues, would give minority candidates a shot. District voting would divide the county into equally-sized sections, with each section electing a representative to the county commission.
“There’s really no need for (district voting),” said Fayette Commissioner Robert Horgan, who wants the county to continue its court fight. “We have minorities on city council in Fayetteville. We had a judge in the district. So it’s not like we’re keeping anybody down.”
An uphill battle
But Fayette is fighting against history. At-large voting has rarely survived legal challenge in Georgia.
Since 1982, virtually all of the nearly 100 challenges to at-large system in Georgia have been successful, said Laughlin McDonald, Atlanta-based director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.
Fayette’s case pits 10 African-American residents against the county’s long-held political structure that until recently was set up around militia districts dating to the mid-1800s. The 10 African-Americans — lawyers, pilots, accountants and other longtime residents — aren’t the first to try to change Fayette’s at-large voting system. There’s been a coalition of whites and blacks dating back nearly 20 years that has tried to get the county to move to district voting which they say would be a more equitable system. Fayette is 21 percent African-American.
The case now awaits a federal judge’s decision which is not likely to come until next year. The school board, which also was a part of the suit, attempted to settle with the NAACP but that settlement was overturned after the judge learned the county had not agreed to the settlement. The school board is now bound by the outcome in the NAACP’s suit against the county.
The NAACP thinks the Fayette system of election is dated.
“The country has now twice elected an African American to serve in the highest office in the land,” Ryan Haygood, director of the political participation group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. “And yet in a state that is incredibly racially diverse, the Fayette County Commission has dug its heels in and fully committed itself to an electoral scheme that no African American will be elected countywide.”
Horgan said the current election method does not discriminate. And he says African-Americans benefit from the decisions of an all-white council.
“Nobody can say how being a black person you’re not getting anything,” said Horgan, who lives in the north end of Fayette county. “The roads get repaired just as any place in the county… Show me where are you not getting representation?”
Change is coming
Ed Johnson, a local minister, became the first African-American to be elected last year to the Fayetteville city council. He defeated a Republican incumbent by winning 62 percent of the vote in a city where whites account for 55 percent of the population.
During his campaign, Johnson met with an array of groups, including the Tea Party, so people could get to know him and his platform, which he attributes to his win.
Johnson’s victory, for some, is an example of hard work overcoming race and evidence that the existing election system can work for minority candidates.
But the county’s history, where no minority has won a countywide election, might be more compelling to the courts.
“The appropriate, democratic thing for the county to do would be to adopt a plan that provide all voters an opportunity to participate effectively in the voting process,” said McDonald, a lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in hundreds of voting rights cases nationwide over the last 40 years.
While county officials continue their legal fight, leaders from the local NAACP, Tea Party and newly-elected officials recently met over lunch in a get-to-know you session aimed at creating better working relationships. Among the lunch time discussion topics: at-large vs. district voting.
Johnson attended the lunch with the NAACP and Tea Party members and the three new commissioners who take office in January.
“It was very positive and upbeat,” said Johnson, pastor of Flat Rock AME, the county’s oldest black church. “They were all open-minded and willing to get to know the issues and the culture of minorities.”
Bob Ross, co-founder of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party, also attended the lunch. He favors at-large voting but believes the political newcomers will create a more inclusive atmosphere.
“We want to fully integrate all of the citizens of Fayette,” Ross said. “And we think with this new board (of commissioners) we’re on our way to doing that.”