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NAACP: Enforce district vote for July 31 primary

Federal judge asked to enforce original school board settlement and to require district voting for 3 posts

In the Atlanta federal courthouse this afternoon (May 30), a district court judge will convene an evidentiary hearing in the district voting lawsuit filed against the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education.

Hanging in the balance is a fundamental change to the way candidates are elected to both governing bodies. Currently both boards use at-large voting for all five seats on both governing bodies. That allows all voters, regardless of where they live in the county, to cast ballots on all five seats when the posts come up for election.

But the Fayette County and national branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People want to implement district voting, which would limit voters to only voting for one commission and Board of Education seat every four years: the one whose geographic district the voter resides in.

Despite the fact that qualifying has ended for the three BoE seats up for election this year, the NAACP is asking the court to approve the BoE settlement and enforce district voting for the July 31 board of education primary.

But county elections officials have testified that doing so would be onerous at this point prior to the election, as all Fayette County voters would have to be made aware of the change well in advance of the date by which absentee ballots are to be mailed out, some 45 days in advance of the election.

The NAACP contends that both boards should adopt district voting and create new geographic districts that would allow for one of the districts to have a majority number of minority voters so as to make it easier for a minority to be elected to both governing bodies.

The BoE had agreed in January to adopt district voting in a proposed settlement with the NAACP, but the settlement was overturned two months ago after the county objected to it.

The lawsuit filed by the NAACP names both the county commission and the Board of Education as defendants, and since the county had not agreed to that consent order, it was nullified by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr.

The county is challenging the BoE’s ability to settle the suit since the school board does not have authority under state law to change its own district lines or method of voting. The county contends that under Georgia law that responsibility lies solely with the Georgia Legislature.

The settlement proposed by the NAACP and BoE would create one district that would have black residents making up 48.68 percent of the population and 46.2 percent of the voting age population.

It also would create a special election in November to fill the District 5 seat currently held by Leonard Presberg, who was appointed late last year to the vacancy left by the death of board member Sam Tolbert.

The county is also challenging that portion of the proposed settlement, saying the BoE has no legal power to grant such a change to the legislation that controls BoE elections.

The BoE’s attempt to settle the lawsuit may be at least partly driven by the motivation of a barren budget, as the school system has gone into drastic cost-cutting mode in recent months, including discussions of potentially closing certain schools in an attempt to save funds.

The school system did not seek for its defense an outside law firm specializing in voting rights lawsuits such as the district voting lawsuit. Instead, the BoE decided to use its regular contracted attorney, Phil Hartley, to represent it in the case.

The county commission, meanwhile, hired an Atlanta law firm that specializes in district voting cases: Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.

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