NAACP lawsuit says Fayette County disenfranchises black voters

A national civil rights group is suing Fayette County to end what it says is a discriminatory election process that has kept blacks off the County Commission and school board.

Fayette's at-large election process, which allows residents to vote for any candidate regardless of where they live in the county, "has discriminatory effects on the voting strength of Fayette County's black community" and violates the federal Voting Rights Act, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Newnan.

The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the local NAACP and the Georgia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

There are very few at-large systems left in Georgia that can be challenged, said Laughlin McDonald, Atlanta-based director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. Since 1982, virtually all of the nearly 100 challenges to at-large system in Georgia have been successful. The at-large system in Georgia remains largely in areas with relatively small minority populations.

“The reality is many of these areas remain very polarized on racial grounds,” McDonald said.

No blacks have ever served on the Fayette school board or commission. Both boards have five members each.

For 15 years, black residents have pushed for district voting, which is favored by the Voting Rights Act, said Ryan Haygood, director of voting rights for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York.

The lawsuit seeks to create five voting districts. Blacks make up 21 percent of the county, with most concentrated in the northeastern part of the county.  A district could be created in that area to give blacks the majority, Haygood said.

The lawsuit includes 11 Fayette voters as plaintiffs who say they've been unable to elect "candidates of their choice" to the commission and school board.

Tom Sawyer, head of the Fayette County Board of Elections and a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment, except to say, "I don't have a say-so on how this is set up."  Efforts to reach attorneys for the school board and commission were unsuccessful.

Haygood noted that under the current system, "The only way African-Americans can elect their preferred candidate is if they get substantial white crossover voting, which they don't."

He cited a recent school board election in which a black candidate got 99 percent of the black vote and less than 18 percent of the white vote. She lost.

"There's a structural wall of exclusion that guarantees that blacks cannot elect their preferred candidates, which is why the county continues to use its at-large voting process," Haygood said.