The NAACP and a group of black residents are asking the federal court to stop Fayette from using countywide voting to elect a successor for the late Commissioner Pota Coston.
Coston, the county’s first black commissioner, died July 3 after six months in office. The civil rights group is asking for a preliminary injunction in the September 15 special election.
Coston was elected using district-voting after U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten ruled in 2013 that at-large voting violated parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The county appealed, saying Fayette’s small minority population made it hard to create a mostly-black district and that a race-based district was discriminatory. One in five residents is black.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Batten for a trial. A trial date has not been set.
In the meantime, the NAACP wants Batten to stop the county from reverting back to at-large voting for September’s special election.
County officials said in a prepared statement Monday they will oppose the requested injunction because the 2012 at-large plan is currently in effect and, therefore, the special election must be held under that plan.
“It isn’t that we will or won’t have district voting. We need to follow the process laid out by the appeals court, which is a trial,” Commission Chairman Charles Oddo told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday.
In its Friday filing, the NAACP said the county should maintain what the civil rights group considers to be the status quo — district-voting. The NAACP noted that Fayette County had a larger voter turnout — 61 percent — in the November 2014 election than any other county in Georgia and argued that’s because black residents came out in force to vote.
With the voting rights case still unresolved, the county elections board voted last week to use at-large voting, saying it had no choice but to follow local laws that call for at-large voting to be used in special elections. The voting rights lawsuit does not provide a remedy for dealing with situations when an elected official dies in office.
Leah Aden, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said she hopes the preliminary injunction hearing will be held before qualifying for the District 5 seat begins August 10.
While the county grapples with the lawsuit, some residents say the issue boils down more to politics, not race.
At last week’s board of elections meeting, Bob Ross of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party said black voters in Fayetteville had numerous opportunities in the last decade to elect black candidates but didn’t because the candidates were Republicans.
Aden disputes that. There have been four elections in which black Republicans have lost, Aden noted.
She cited the 2006 special election to fill the commission seat of the late A.G. VanLandingham, a point also noted in Batten’s 2013 ruling.
Two black and one white Republican candidates ran for the vacant seat, Batten wrote. One of the black candidates was attorney Emory Wilkerson, then vice-chairman of the Fayette County Republican party. The other, Malcolm Hughes, was a certified public accountant. The white Republican, Robert Horgan, was a mechanic. Two black Democratic candidates also ran,Wendi Felton, a small business owner, and Charles Rousseau. Rousseau got 29.3 percent of the black vote, but only 2 percent support from non-African-American voters, the ruling said. Horgan was elected with 51.7 percent of the overall vote.