Judge: At-large voting still good for July 31 primary
Voting rights lawsuit will proceed, but federal judge says NAACP-BoE settlement in favor of district voting has no support in case law
A federal judge has rebuffed a legal maneuver that would have led to district voting for the upcoming Fayette County Board of Education elections. He also said that the NAACP’s settlement with the school board has no foundation in case law.
The proposed settlement between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Fayette County Board of Education would have changed the voting process from the current at-large system, which allows voters to choose candidates for all five posts on the board of education, to district voting.
District voting allows voters to choose only one of the five board members: the one whose geographic district the voter lives in.
The NAACP argues that the at-large voting process prevents black voters from being able to elect the candidate of their choice and because the county’s black population has now exceeded the 20 percent mark, they deserve a special geographic voting district created for both the Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission.
U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. ruled Wednesday that the map for school board seats proposed by the BoE-NAACP settlement does not meet the legal requirement established in case law by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court has held that any remedy for a Section 2 violation of the Voting Rights Act must create a majority-minority district that has a black voting age population of at least 50 percent plus one voter.
The map proposed in the settlement and adopted by the BoE in January, creates the fifth district with a black voting age population of 46.2 percent, a bit short of the Supreme Court requirements, which have been standing case law followed for 20 years, Judge Batten noted.
NAACP attorney Ryan Haygood argued that that the map proposed by the NAACP-BoE settlement would have likely resulted in an African-American candidate being elected to the district five post currently held by Leonard Presberg.
Judge Batten said he agreed with that premise, but the letter of the law does not allow the court to approve such a map as a remedy for a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which in this case argues that the votes of black voters are diluted compared to those of voters of other races in the county.
Batten’s order does not halt the lawsuit; it only covers the proposed NAACP-BoE settlement and the map it would have created.
Batten also declined a request from NAACP and BoE attorneys to strike the recent qualifying period for the three BoE seats that will be up for election this July and November. The judge noted that when the lawsuit was filed it did not seek an immediate injunction to have at-large voted halted in time for the elections.
Haygood argued that the settlement map proposed by the NAACP and BoE, combined with district voting, would have allowed for Laura Burgess, a black college professor, to be elected to the district 5 post. He also contended the new map and district voting would have allowed for the election of “a different U.S. Senator” in a recent election.
Batten gave the NAACP and BoE the option of seeking an immediate appeal of his decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals but based on Haygood’s response in court such a maneuver did not seem likely.
School Board Attorney Phil Hartley noted that for at-large voting to be changed for school board seats, the voters of Fayette County would first have to vote in favor of striking down the constitutional amendment that governs voting for the BoE seats. Judge Batten replied that such a vote would be at-large as well.
Discovery in the lawsuit is still ongoing and one of the major impasses that will have to be determined by the court is whether or not the proposed settlement map, and an “illustrative map” proffered by the NAACP, which created a district that reached the 50.1 percent mark of voting age black residents, was gerrymandered.
The county’s legal expert will contend both maps were gerrymandered, while the NAACP’s legal expert will testify that neither of the maps submitted by the NAACP were created with racial background information, attorneys for both sides said in court today.
The court hearing was predicated by the county’s challenge to the proposed consent order. Judge Batten noted that he overturned that order after he had been misled that all parties agreed to it, when it turned out that the county itself had not agreed to the pact.