Fayette launches appeal to restore at-large voting

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In a bid to overturn a judge’s decision to replace at-large voting with district voting for future county commission and board of education elections in Fayette County, the County Commission will challenge a number of legal rulings made by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten.

The rulings came in a lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People along with several local plaintiffs. The lawsuit claimed that at-large voting prevented black residents from “choosing the candidate of their choice” and also pointed to the fact that no black resident had ever been elected to either governing body.

Batten agreed, mandating the switch to district voting and the use of a specially-drawn map that creates a 5th district with a population of more than 50 percent black residents of voting age. The idea is that such a district would virtually assure the election of a black candidate to the Post 5 spots on the county commission and the board of education.

The big change will be at the voting booth, as residents will no longer be able to cast a ballot for all five seats on the county commission and board of education. Instead, under district voting, residents will only be able to vote for just one of the five seats for both governing bodies, as they will be limited to voting only in the geographic district in which they live.

The district voting format is being used for this year’s primary and general elections with the Post 3 and Post 5 seats up for grabs on the county commission along with the Post 4 and Post 5 seats on the board of education.

The appeal, if granted consideration, would be heard by the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Fayette County Board of Education recently voted 3-1 to also pursue an appeal of the district voting ruling.

The commission will take that several steps further, challenging a number of rulings Batten made during the case including:

• The final judgment in the case;

• The order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs;

• The order denying a motion to appeal the summary judgment decision;

• The order appointing the state legislature’s redistricting office as the court’s technical advisor and expert; and

• The order imposing the district voting map, also known as the “remedial plan.”

The board of education’s appeal is noteworthy because an earlier board initially had voted to settle the district voting lawsuit by adopting its own district voting map. While it was first approved by the court, Judge Batten later overturned the settlement because the county commission, listed as co-defendant in the case, had not approved of the settlement.

The school system has also seen a change in its financial fortunes since the attempted settlement, as the closing of several schools helped realign the school board’s budget to create a projected surplus by the end of this school year of several million dollars.

School board member Leonard Presberg has been the sole local official opposing an appeal of the district voting lawsuit, citing a wish to spend the school system’s money on matters that directly affect students instead.