Poll workers, from left, Markeia White, Lawonda Davis and Alyssa Watson help voter Leron Bush, right, sign in before voting at the Hoggards Mill Precinct in Baker County, Ga., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2013.
Photo: Joe Bellacomo
Photo: Joe Bellacomo

Disputed voting system, racial power gap persist

Emmett Miller was at a campaign fish fry last year when he learned he had an opponent in his race for an open seat on the Baker County board of commissioners. He was surprised but not alarmed, even though his opponent was white.

“I just knew I had it,” said Miller, 62, an affable but shy former factory worker. He figured that even if, back in the 1960s, he was too young to join voting rights protests with his sister, he could still do his part by helping his neighbors get paved roads and better drainage. “All the time I figured I was going to win,” he said, “because I had more blacks than he had whites.”

He was wrong. Miller, who is black, lost the race, despite winning his own, largely black, precinct by a wide margin. Even though nearly half the county is black, it is governed by an all-white commission.

However, if Baker County’s five commissioners were elected from districts rather than by a countywide vote — the way local governments are elected in 52 of Georgia’s 159 counties — Miller would likely have won.

The same story, with various local permutations, is repeated all across Georgia. After almost a half century of battles targeting at-large elections as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, African-Americans remain under-represented in local governments across the state, an exclusive analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed. At-large voting and black under-representation still go hand-in-hand, leaving some local governments, which decide matters of great importance for day-to-day living, without any black representation.

In some counties, such as Fulton, whites are under-represented on the commission. But that is far less common.

Statewide, more than 100 counties elect at least one commissioner at large, meaning by countywide vote. Sixty percent of voters in those at-large contests are white; 92 percent of commissioners who hold the seats are white.

“There’s no question that a district form of voting normally benefits the racial minority,” said Chris Coates, a civil rights lawyer who left the Justice Department in a dispute with the Obama administration and recently defended South Carolina’s voter ID law.

Conversely, Coates said, a system that includes at-large voting “normally solidifies the strength of the racial majority.” That’s certainly true in Georgia: In 203 at-large commissioner elections, the victorious candidate was of the same race as the plurality of active registered voters in 186 cases.

Kevin Coker, for one, thinks Baker County’s at-large system is wrong. He’s the candidate who beat Miller.

“Our county is messed up,” said Coker. “I think they need black representation on our county commission. I think that would cost me my job, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Out of sight

Miller didn’t realize Baker’s population had shifted from majority-black to majority-white. Neither did Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. McDonald also was unaware that all five current Baker commissioners are white — even though it’s his job to challenge voting systems that arguably prevent racial and ethnic minorities from electing candidates of their choice.

But Georgia is only one of the states he monitors, and it alone has 159 counties and hundreds of towns. No one can know what’s going on in all of them.

Until this summer, the federal government, too, was constantly looking over Georgia’s shoulder. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required every Georgia jurisdiction, plus those in a handful of other, mostly southern, states, to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing any voting procedure. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended that part of the law, Section 5. Now, costly lawsuits are the only recourse for voters who feel their rights have been trampled.

The AJC’s analysis, which compared the racial makeup of each of Georgia’s county commissions to the racial makeup of the county itself, found that blacks are still widely under-represented. The mismatch is especially pronounced in counties with both at-large elections and a black population that approaches but does not reach 50 percent.

That raises the question: If arguably unfair systems persisted when Section 5 was in effect, what will happen now that it is gone? In particular, what will happen in Georgia’s scores of small, rural counties, where there are few experts in civil rights law or demographics, and little money for lawsuits that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years to fight?

Greene County, where 61 percent of residents are white, has two black commissioners and three whites, including the at-large chairman.

Before this summer’s Supreme Court decision, the commission voted 3-2, on racial lines, to submit a redistricting plan that would have eliminated one majority-black district, perhaps both. The Justice Department rejected it.

After the court’s ruling, the county implemented a new plan drawn by state mappers. It reduced the concentration of voting-age blacks in one black commissioner’s district to a bare 50 percent. And it drew the other black incumbent, Titus Andrews, into a majority-white district.

“In my observation, the people in the gated communities” — white people, that is — “they feel that we don’t have much knowledge,” Andrews said. “They feel that we’re ignorant.”

Politics, Baker-style

If Emmett Miller had won, his first act as commissioner would have been paving and draining more of the dirt roads in his precinct, Hoggards Mill, that flood during strong rains. A few years ago he had to take a rowboat to check on his mother down the road, who is partially paralyzed.

Baker County is home to about 3,400 of the state’s 1.8 million rural residents. In the entire county, there is no hotel, no hospital, no television station and no interstate highway. Those quiet dirt roads are lined with pines and water oaks dripping Spanish moss.

Sprawling farms dominate Baker’s economy, transmuting loamy sand into poultry, peanuts, cotton, beef cattle, corn, hogs, and soybeans. A plantation formerly owned by Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff is home to a research center.

The median household income for African-Americans is half that of whites — and even they have incomes far below the median for all Georgians. In this corner of the state, when people put gas in their cars, they often stop pumping when the number on the pump reads $5 or $10.

Baker is not without a civil rights legacy. Miller still remembers the fear and pride he felt as a boy when his older sister and other voting rights protesters went to jail.

He was too young to join in then, but last year, when the commissioner seat came open, he knew what he wanted; he went down to the county elections office and paid the filing fee.

“It felt good,” said Miller, a man of spare phrases. “Yep. Gonna make a difference.”

In the style of Baker County, Miller campaigned. He bought a box of T-shirts with his name on them for supporters to wear, went to a couple of cookouts, and bought 1,000 simple business cards with his name and the office he sought, which he passed out from time to time. His nephew made him larger, colorful cards with his photo on them, a particular advantage in his precinct.

One Baker County tradition he did not follow, said Miller and his wife, Lindy: They did not pass out money and alcohol in return for promised votes, in spite of a few requests from potential voters.

As far as they know, Coker didn’t campaign. Miller lost to him by 25 percentage points.

Crossing lines

Now, Coker and other commissioners are supporting a plan by the board of elections (which includes one black member) to eliminate all polling places except one in the county seat, Newton. That would put many residents a half-hour highway drive from the poll. Some African-Americans said they fear the change will dissuade some in their community from voting.

Coker was initially skeptical of the plan, which is designed to save money. Now he supports it. If he were black, he said, maybe he would have a different perspective and oppose it.

In majority-black Warren County, the majority-black elections board made a similar proposal. It was implemented two months after this summer’s Supreme Court ruling with the support of the white commission chairman, John Graham.

Betty Reese, who is African-American, was troubled by that decision, which she thinks will hurt blacks more than whites. “You know, we don’t have a lot of transportation,” she said. For many seniors and low-income people, “to get from one place to another place, they have to pay someone. I just really think it’s going to affect us.”

Nevertheless, Reese gives Graham generally high marks for attending to the concerns of black voters. She organizes the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration; he opens it.

For his part, Graham said he recognized his knowledge deficit and campaigned “one road at a time” to learn his black constituents’ issues. In that, he exemplifies what some political scientists describe as an up-side to at-large voting: It may force successful candidates to campaign across racial lines.

Some political experts, including Charles Bullock, a professor at the University of Georgia, say at-large elections also encourage officials to look beyond parochial concerns, focusing on what is best for the county as a whole. In Georgia’s most pervasive system — several commissioners from districts and one at-large — the at-large official is often the chair, with special authority over the commission’s agenda and the work of other commissioners.

Resisting Washington

In 1961, such lofty considerations weren’t uppermost in the minds of officials who changed Baker County’s electoral system from districts to at large. Then, not a single African-American in the county was registered to vote, according to newspaper archives. One woman recalls the white sheriff pushing her down the courthouse steps to prevent her from registering.

Baker wasn’t unique. In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement and then the federal government promoted black voter registration, a number of Georgia counties moved to replace voting by district with systems that included at-large seats. That meant whites — who are a majority in most Georgia counties — could keep blacks out of office, no matter how many of them registered and voted.

After the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department was able to block such tactics if it found a proposed change discriminatory. But if the at-large system was in place by 1965 and remained unchanged, there was nothing for the Justice Department to review.

Today Baker County and 33 other Georgia counties elect all commissioners at large. Many more elect only the chair at large. Some mix a few district seats with a few at-large seats.

Mike Tabb, 70, a former Baker County Commission chair, is clear on why the county went to at-large. “The commissioners got it changed,” said Tabb, whose father served in county government before him. “They thought they would prevent blacks from getting elected.”

For the most part it worked, even though, back then, the majority of county residents were black. In conversations with numerous residents and officials, people could recall only two black men who have been elected to the commission.

Lessons learned

If Miller had known Baker County is majority white, he said, “I would have went to some of these other precincts and campaigned more.”

That might have helped, but considering Coker’s margin of victory, the race may have been out of reach.

Many whites were perfectly nice to Miller during the campaign, he said. As for those who weren’t, he recalls no racial epithets. But there were aggressive slights, as from a white business owner who snapped at him a little too vehemently not to campaign in her store, where he was handing out his cards.

As someone who’s lived in Baker County all his life, he’s keenly attuned to even covert hostility, and it stings.

“You can tell,” said his wife, Lindy. “You can walk into the store or the bank and some of them act like you’re poison. Some say, ‘Good morning.’”

You may contact the writers at the following links: Ariel Hart, Jeff Ernsthausen, and David Wickert

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