Fayette, NAACP cobble together temporary remedy for 2014 election

Fayette County and the NAACP may be close to reaching a solution that will allow the county to hold elections in the fall, despite their nearly three-year-old court battle over the county’s voting process.

At issue is the county’s 192-year-old at-large voting system, which the NAACP says has kept black residents from serving on the county commission and the school board. The county commission has spent nearly $300,000 so far fighting the lawsuit.

A federal judge agreed with the civil rights group last May and recently came up with his own remedy: a map that creates a majority black district similar to the one proposed by the NAACP. County officials have said it is not possible to draw a majority-minority district without using race as the key factor.

Lawyers for the NAACP, the county and school board are set to meet Feb. 18 with U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten about his map.

Briefs filed this week and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show that both sides expressed a willingness to accept Batten’s solution — albeit for different reasons.

The county still doesn’t buy the need for a race-based district — and may still appeal the judge’s initial decision that the county’s at-large voting system violates section 2 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, County Commission Chairman Steve Brown said he’s not happy with the map. He said it resembles “an octopus” in its efforts to create a majority-black district because it stretches from the northeast part of the county over to Tyrone, in the northwest part of the county.

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

Nonetheless, the county appears ready to accept the judge’s plan because it needs to have a definitive voting system in place in time for the general election in November when voters will go to the polls to elect two county commissioners.

County officials have less than a month to get ready for the qualifying period. For that reason, the county commission, in its brief, asked the court to adopt a plan by Feb. 25.

“In the brief we filed Wednesday, the county commission notes its continuing objection to a district that is drawn primarily based on race,” said Anne Lewis, a partner at Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP, the Atlanta law firm representing the Fayette commission in the case. “Understanding that the county continues to have that objection, neither the county nor the other parties raised any other significant objections to the plan proposed by the judge. For the purposes of the 2014 election, it’s important to the county to get a plan in place now.”

“We’d have brand new districts if we had to use that (judge’s) map,” Brown said. “Administratively, it will become a real burden on our county and elections office to get this done no matter what map is approved by the judge. We’ve got to have enough time — at least a couple of months — to get things together for qualifying (for the election). We may not have enough time to do that.”

Ryan Haygood, New York-based director of the political participation group for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said he was encouraged after reading the county’s legal briefs. “They (county) expressed some reservations about the court’s map but ultimately they did not object to it.”

The legal defense fund represents the civil rights group in the Fayette case.