Opinion: Fayette at-large voting discriminates

Around 1956, Joe Anderson attempted to become one of the first black men to register to vote in Fayette County. Though the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education had struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine as unconstitutional only two years earlier, the Fayette registrar refused to follow that mandate and shut the door on Mr. Joe, leading him to slip his voter registration through an open window at the County Board of Elections. In this era, the KKK marched through Fayette to discourage Mr. Joe, and other black Fayette residents, from attempting to vote.

Not surprisingly, though black voters in 1960 comprised 25 percent of Fayette’s population according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at-large voting in the county — a structural wall of exclusion — prevented black voters from ever electing a candidate of choice to the school board or county commission. Indeed, prior to the recent successful lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, no black candidate served on either of those local boards in Fayette’s nearly 200-year history, even though at least 12 black candidates (from both parties) ran and lost to white candidates.

In that case, a federal district court found Fayette’s at-large method of election, in combination with racially polarized voting, violates the Voting Rights Act because it essentially guarantees black voters cannot elect their candidates of choice.

To remedy that illegal racial discrimination in voting, the federal court ordered Fayette to implement district-based elections for both the county commission and school board. As a result, in 2014, black voters in Fayette made history and elected their preferred candidates of choice — a black woman and a Jewish man — to serve on the county commission and school board, respectively. Fayette also had the highest turnout of all counties in Georgia during the 2014 election season.

Notwithstanding this historic and remedial election, the county commission and school board appealed the ruling, and a federal court of appeals recently returned this case to the district court for a trial.

In doing so, the court of appeals was careful to note that while a trial is necessary for the district court to make credible determinations of evidence, “the district court made abundantly clear in its comprehensive (2013) opinion that the substantial weight of that evidence favored (plaintiffs),” and that “with no African-American candidate ever elected to the (school board) or the (county commission under at-large voting) and racially polarized voting in elections for both boards, both of these important, undisputed factors pointed commandingly in (plaintiffs’ favor).”

Moreover, the court of appeals acknowledged that the school board and county commission have raised “irrelevant arguments that have no bearing on the merits of (plaintiffs’) claims or which are clearly foreclosed by (legal) precedent,” as the district court recognized in its 2013 decision.

The reality is, at-large election methods in Georgia have repeatedly been struck down by federal courts. Between 1982 and 2005, voters of color were successful in nearly 70 such challenges.

A number of realities are clear as black voters head to trial to preserve the progress they have won in Fayette.

First, blacks and other voters have fought back against racial discrimination in voting since before Joe Anderson resisted it in 1956.

Second, the experiences of other black voters who have successfully waged similar Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act claims throughout Georgia to challenge at-large electoral methods make clear black voters will achieve and maintain fair electoral opportunity in Fayette.

Finally, the historical outcomes of the 2014 election demonstrate that, with a remedy to racial discrimination in voting in place, black and other voters in Fayette County can stand on the right side of history like the extraordinary people who marched from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, when they precipitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Leah Aden is an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.