Judge seeks state’s help in resolving Fayette voting issue

A federal judge Tuesday tapped state redistricting experts to help in redrawing voting lines in Fayette County, the first step in changing a voting system that has historically made it harder for black candidates to be elected to county-level office.

Judge Timothy Batten’s order calls for the Georgia Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office to help him evaluate new district maps or “remedial plans” submitted by the school board, county commission and the NAACP, which sued Fayette two years ago over its at-large voting system.

Batten’s latest decision comes three months after he ordered Fayette to move to a district voting system that includes one majority-minority district to give black candidates a better shot at being elected. No black person has served on the school board or commission in Fayette’s 192-year history.

Roughly 20 percent of Fayette’s population is black, with most black residents living in the northern half of the county. Fayetteville, in the northeast part of the county, is 24 percent black, and Tyrone, on the northwest border, is a third black.

While the judge weighs solutions, the county and the NAACP continue their verbal sparring.

Fayette Commission Chair Steve Brown accused the civil rights group of peddling its own brand of racism by creating a map that shuts out the incumbents. But the NAACP insists its remedy isn’t intended to slight the incumbents.

Under the NAACP’s plan, there would be five redrawn districts, with one district being majority black. The current county commission has three districts and two at-large seats. Under the new plan, five commissioners would each represent a district.

The county commission’s map is similar to the NAACP’s map. Instead of submitting a map, the school board sent criteria for how districts should be developed.

Leonard Presberg, a Democrat who supports district voting, would be shut out of his own district under the new proposed maps, Brown noted. “The only difference between Leonard Presberg and the group of voters the plaintiffs were trying to capture in the new district is skin color.

“You don’t fight racism with more racism,” Brown, once a member of the NAACP, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They don’t want to risk losing to white incumbents because that would show there’s not as much discrimination as they’re claiming. If you did include the incumbent and both were elected that’s beautiful because then you have people voting based on the character and not the color of the candidate. “

But the NAACP’s lead attorney in the Fayette voting rights case said the redrawn district map is an effort “to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.”

“The court has found at-large voting violates the Voting Rights Act. If we had a district with (the current) incumbents, it would be essentially rewarding them for having been elected or appointed under an illegal voting scheme,” said Ryan Haygood, the lead attorney and the director of the Political Participation group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. “Having no incumbents provides the best chance for voters in the district to elect their candidate of choice.”

Haygood said the good news is that “the court will fashion a remedy that will provide future black candidates an equal opportunity to serve on the county commission.”

Haygood said he hopes the matter can be put to a vote during Fayette’s special election in November. But Brown said there’s a lot of work — including relocating some precincts — that would need to be done to get the matter on the ballot by then.

“I don’t think that’s happening,” Brown said. “Until you have physical districts, you can’t have special election on anything.”

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