District voting maps now due
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday invalidating a portion of the Voting Rights Act will have no effect on the recent district voting decision involving Fayette County, according to County Commission Chairman Steve Brown.
“I have received a couple of calls already about whether the Section 5 ruling affects our appeal on a Section 2 lawsuit,” Brown said in an email. “It is my understanding that the ruling has no relevance on our case.”
That means that Fayette County is one step closer to having new district maps approved for positions on the county commission and board of education to comply with a federal judge’s order to change the election format from at-large voting to district voting.
All parties were required to submit new maps to the court by June 25, which will allow the judge to make a final determination on the district lines. The goal of the map is to draw a district that will have a majority of voting-age residents who are black, a request in the lawsuit that was filed in August 2011 by the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several individual residents.
Federal Judge Timothy S. Batten ruled last month that Fayette’s current district voting system was discriminatory against black residents, who encompass 20.1 percent of the county’s population as of the 2010 Census.
Batten’s ruling came during the summary judgment phase, prior to the case going to trial. The county commission has indicated it will pursue an appeal in the case.
The district lines on whichever maps are adopted by Batten will be crucial to Fayette residents, as voters will be limited to voting only for the county commission and board of education post associated with the district in which they live. No longer will Fayette residents be able to vote on all five posts on each governing body, which removes a significant amount of local control from every voter in the county.
Batten, however, has deemed that change necessary to allow black residents to have their chance at electing a black person to the county commission and board of education.
The district voting format will also preclude voters countywide from seeking to recall or voting in a recall election for four of the five posts on the board of education and county commission, as they will be restricted to conducting such activities only for the elected official whose district they live in.
The district voting map proffered by the NAACP put sitting county commissioners David Barlow and Allen McCarty in the same district. The county’s proposed map as submitted to the court is expected to rectify that problem.
The NAACP suit contends that a black resident has never been elected to either the board of education or the board of commissioners. At-large voting proponents, however, point to the repeated election of former Chief Magistrate Charles R. Floyd, who was initially appointed to office in the early 2000s before he was re-elected to the countywide post before his unexpected death.
Fayetteville voters in 2011, on an at-large basis, elected a black man to the City Council: former NAACP President Ed Johnson.
Favoring the NAACP, Batten wrote in his order 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,” based on Fayette’s current at-large voting process.
Batten went further, saying the at-large voting process “essentially guarantees that no African-American will be elected to either board.”
The county’s spending on the case has come near the $300,000 mark and the county is also expected to be on the hook for the plaintiff’s attorneys fees as well. While the NAACP has criticized the county for the expenditures, it has not publicly revealed how much it has spent on the lawsuit, even though county taxpayers may be on the hook for those funds as well.
The board of education in February 2012 attempted to settle the lawsuit with the NAACP by proposing a new map and adopting district voting. Although the court initially approved that settlement, the approval was rescinded after the Fayette County Commission objected. Batten later indicated that he was unaware the commission had not agreed to that settlement.
That settlement would have created a special election to fill the district 5 board of education seat currently held by board member Leonard Presberg, who was appointed by the board to fill the unexpired term left vacant by the death of board member Sam Tolbert.
Several months later, Batten rebuffed an effort from the NAACP that sought to enact district voting for the June and November 2012 elections. At that time, Batten said the NAACP’s proposed district map did not eclipse the 50 percent minority threshold required by established case law.
Since that time, the NAACP submitted a new district map that created a district which contained a true majority-minority district.
In February of last year, the county commission adopted a new five-district map to replace the previous three-district map which included two countywide at large seats. The General Assembly was unable to ratify that map, but it was enacted on an order from Batten after Peachtree City attorney Rick Lindsey filed a separate federal lawsuit. The county’s map did not create a majority-minority district nor did it include a format change to district voting.
Lindsey ultimately prevailed and the new five-district map was used for the 2012 county commission elections for three of the five seats on the board.