Two months from now, U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr. will revisit a case looking at how Fayette County elects its leaders. He’ll hear arguments for and against at-large voting. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of 10 black Fayette residents, says district voting would be a better way to elect representatives. They say at-large elections dilute minority voting strength. But county officials want to stick with at-large, or countywide, voting. They argue that politics — not race — have kept black residents from getting elected to county office in the heavily Republican county.
Advocates for district voting say over the years at-large elections are essentially discriminatory. They argue that Fayette’s history and past voting patterns have made it hard for black residents to get elected to county-wide positions on the county commission and school board. They also say racially polarized voting exists in Fayette. They cite last fall’s election as a more equitable election process. That election involved district voting for the first time, which led to Tyrone resident Pota Coston becoming Fayette’s first black county commissioner. Coston was elected to District 5, the mostly black district created from Batten’s 2013 order, which replaced at-large voting with district voting.
Fayette County officials argue that, while Fayette has a large number of black residents in the northeastern part of the county, they are not a majority and thus not large enough to create a mostly minority district. The only way to get a majority is to go across the top of the county and into Tyrone, which is what Batten did in drawing the district map. County officials say that amounts to racial gerrymandering.
There are few at-large voting systems left in Georgia. Since 1982, virtually all of the nearly 100 challenges to at-large systems in Georgia have been successful, experts say. In 2013, Batten ruled, without a trial, in favor of district voting and Coston was elected in November to the District 5 seat. County officials appealed that ruling, and the appeal court ruled that Batten had to reconsider the issue after a trial. That trial starts November 16.
In the meantime, Coston died in July. County officials determined that, because of the appeal, the special election to replace her should be held under at-large voting. That decision was challenged. Batten ruled in favor of advocates for district voting, and the Sept. 15 special election to pick a successor for Coston will be decided by District 5 voters only.
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