Fayette County, Georgia—Today, in an important voting case, a federal court struck down, as violative of the Voting Rights Act, Fayette County’s discriminatory at-large method of electing members to the County Board of Commissioners and County Board of Education.
In the case, Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, et al. v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners, et al., the Court, in an 81-page opinion, found that although Black residents comprise 20 percent of Fayette County, are geographically concentrated in the County, and consistently vote together for Board of Commissioners and Board of Education candidates, no Black candidate has ever been elected to either of these boards in the County’s 191-year history.
“As the Court recognized today, Fayette County’s at-large election method violates the Voting Rights Act because it is a structural wall of exclusion that guarantees that Black voters, despite having run for office in election after election, cannot elect their candidates of choice,” said Ryan Haygood, Director of the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a leading civil rights law firm that has been a separate entity from the NAACP since 1957. “Today’s ruling provides an opportunity for greater inclusion, fairness, and accountability in Fayette County’s political process through district-based voting.”
Because Black-preferred candidates are not meaningfully supported by white voters, who comprise 70 percent of Fayette County’s population, those candidates cannot win a county-wide election under the current electoral system.
A Black candidate, for example, recently lost a Fayette County Board of Education election after receiving 99 percent support from Black voters, but securing only 15 percent from white voters. In another recent election, three Republican candidates ran for a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners, including two Black candidates and one white candidate. One of the Black candidates was an attorney and then vice-chairman of the Fayette County Republican party, and the other Black candidate was a certified public accountant. The white candidate, who had never voted, but who ran to “preserve the heritage of our county,” was a mechanic. In the end, the white candidate defeated all Black candidates without a runoff.
The federal court found that at-large voting in Fayette weakens the voting strength of Black voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Widely considered the crown jewel of American democracy, the Voting Rights Act is the most effective tool for protecting voters of color against methods of election, such as at-large voting, that dilute the voting strength of communities of color. Until today’s ruling, Fayette County was one of only twenty districts of the 180 school districts in Georgia with a completely at-large electoral scheme.
“Our country has now twice elected a Black person to serve in the highest office in the land,” said Leah Aden, LDF Assistant Counsel. “And yet, in a state with such rich racial diversity as Georgia, Fayette County has for too long resisted numerous opportunities to integrate its political processes. Today’s decision provides an opportunity for Fayette County to embrace its racial diversity and finally integrate its political process and provide avenues of voting opportunity for all of its citizens.”
Plaintiffs, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, and Black registered voters who reside in Fayette County, filed this lawsuit in August 2011. At least since 1993, Plaintiffs and other members of the community have advocated for the creation of district- based voting under which Fayette County would be divided into equally-sized districts with each district electing a representative of their choice to the Board of Commissioners or Board of Education.
“Fayette County citizens have worked for decades to create real representative democracy through district voting,” says John E. Jones, President of the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP. “We are hopeful that today’s decision will bring to an end Fayette County’s nearly two-year fight to preserve a discriminatory voting system that has cost the County nearly $300,000 to defend.”
The Court’s ruling requires the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education to develop a district-based remedial plan that contains at least one district in which Black voters comprise a majority of the voting-age population by June 25, 2013.
“This case is about fundamental fairness and accountability,” said Edward DuBose, President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, a Plaintiff in the lawsuit. “All communities in Fayette County should have the opportunity to elect candidates who are responsive to their needs. The Court’s ruling requires Fayette County to embrace that basic principle.”
In addition to the NAACP LDF, Plaintiffs are represented by Neil Bradley, one of the foremost voting rights experts in the country, and former Associate Director of the ACLU Foundation’s Southern Regional Office and its Voting Rights Project, located in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1971 to 2009.