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Fayette to appeal district voting

The Fayette County Commission has decided to pursue an appeal of a federal court ruling that stands to drastically change how representatives are elected to the county commission and the board of education.

The commission met with attorneys for more than an hour in executive (closed) session Thursday, though it did not formally vote to appeal the ruling. Instead, Commission Chairman Steve Brown announced that the commission has “authorized our counsel to pursue an appeal” on the matter. The commissioners were fairly tight-lipped on the matter following the meeting, but Commissioner David Barlow said Friday that one of his big concerns was that the district map proffered by the NAACP put him in the same district as fellow county commissioner Allen McCarty.

The May 21 ruling from U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten calls for implementation of a district voting format to replace the current at-large method of electing members to the county commission and the board of education. The ruling came as the result of a lawsuit filed by the local and national branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People along with several Fayette residents.

The NAACP contends, and the judge agreed, that at-large voting in Fayette County has made it impossible for black residents in the county to “elect a candidate of their choice.”

“Here, it is undisputed that no African-American has ever been elected to the BOC (board of commissioners or BOE (board of education) and that voting in Fayette County is racially polarized in BOC and BOE elections,” Batten wrote. The judge added that the other legal factors weighed in the plaintiffs’ favor, too. “Thus, the Court is satisfied that “under the totality of the circumstances, [African-Americans in Fayette County are] denied meaningful access to the political process on account of race or color.”

The current at-large voting method allows all Fayette residents to cast a ballot for all five seats on both the commission and the board of education. District voting, however, would restrict residents to selecting only one member to each governing body, limiting them to casting a ballot for the post depending on which geographical district they live in.

District voting would also make it impossible for any Fayette voter to either initiate a recall petition or vote in a recall election on any board member except for the one who resides in their geographical district. Under Georgia voting law, a person may not initiate a recall petition, sign a recall petition or vote in a recall election if they do not live in the geographic district of the candidate being recalled.

The 2010 census determined that 20.1 percent of all Fayette County residents are black, while the voting age figure dips down to 19.5 percent.
Batten’s order set a deadline for all parties in the case to submit proposed district maps for the next election cycle “on or before June 25, 2013.”

The NAACP submitted at least two different district voting maps to the court during the lawsuit. One, dubbed the “illustrative plan” created five districts, one of which included a majority of black residents of voting age. That district encompassed much of the area north of Fayetteville and into the Tyrone area, extending around a large land mass to pick up two thin strips of land along the very border of unincorporated northeast Fayette County.

Those thin-strip extensions were necessary to get the district’s numbers with a majority black voting age population, officials said.

According to the court order, the NAACP map has a black voting age population of 50.22 percent. That figure eclipses the required 50 percent “plus one” required of case law “by approximately 35 voters,” according to Batten’s ruling.

“To be clear,” Batten wrote, “50.22 percent is sufficient to show that the minority voting-age population is sufficiently large.”

Batten’s order also quotes a court case that says if the majority-minority district sought as relief is not “reasonably compact” the Voting Rights Act does not require it to be enacted.

“As for narrow tailoring, the Court explained, ‘If, because of the dispersion of the minority population, a reasonably compact majority-minority district cannot be created, Section 2 does not require a majority-minority district,’” Batten wrote.

Last week a handful of residents urged the commission to decline an appeal of the matter, arguing that the county has already spent too much defending the lawsuit. Through May 28, the county has paid $283,522 on the matter. The NAACP, which issued a press release several months ago criticizing that expenditure, has not publicly released how much it has racked up in attorney’s fees even though if it prevails it has a chance of having the county pick up its tab as well.

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