Atlanta, Georgia — Today, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted a request filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and cooperating Georgia attorney, Neil Bradley, to have district-based voting as the voting method for the upcoming special election for the successor of late Fayette County Commissioner, Pota Coston. The discriminatory method of at-large voting was argued for by the County.
At a hearing on July 30, 2015, Assistant Counsel Leah Aden argued that the County should be prevented from using the at-large method of voting during the upcoming special election because it will impermissibly dilute the voting power of Black voters in Fayette in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary of being signed into law on August 6.
LDF asked the federal court to require the County to conduct the special election using a district-based method of voting that would allow Black voters to have the equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice. In November 2014, Ms. Coston was elected as the first-ever Black woman to the County Commission under a district-based method of election ordered by the federal court.
In its decision today, the federal court recognized that Black voters are substantially likely to prevail on their Voting Rights Act claim at trial; Black voters are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a preliminary injunction; any such harm outweighs any administrative burdens to the County of conducting the upcoming special election using district-based voting; and the public interest will be advanced by protecting Black voters’ fundamental right to vote through district-based voting.
The court recognized that “[w]here, as here, Plaintiffs have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, the Court believes the public interest is best served by ensuring not simply that more voters have a chance to vote but ensuring that all citizens of Fayette County have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”
“This voting rights case shows that local elections are best served when communities can elect those who represent them and their interests,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “Much is at stake and preserving this progress for the residents of Fayette County is critical to upholding the ideals of and aspirations of our democratic institutions.”
LDF filed its 2011 case on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Fayette County NAACP, and 10 Black Fayette County voters. For nearly 20 years before the suit, Black voters in Fayette County had advocated for district-based voting for both the County Commission and the School Board without success.
On summary judgment, the same federal district court that granted LDF’s request related to the special election ruled in 2013 that Fayette County’s at-large method of election violated the Voting Rights Act because it provided less opportunity for Black voters to elect their candidates of choice. To remedy that Voting Right Act violation, the court ordered that district-based elections be held going forward, with one district in which Black voters make up the majority of the voting-age population. That district-based voting map will be in effect for the special election in September 2015.
At summary judgment, the district court ruled that both local bodies used at-large voting as a structural wall of exclusion, which ensured that Black voters could not elect their candidates of choice. Indeed, although Black people make up 20 percent of the County’s population and are concentrated in the northern part of the County, no Black candidate had ever been elected to either body in the County’s nearly two-century history. At least 12 Black candidates (Republicans and Democrats) have sought office and lost.
The dispute over the manner of conducting the upcoming special election followed a decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to remand the case back to the district court for trial to rule ultimately on the merits of the case. In so doing, the appellate court agreed that the substantial weight of the evidence weighed in favor of Plaintiffs’ challenge to at-large voting in Fayette County under the Voting Rights Act.
Despite the progress made, Fayette County has continued to defend its racially discriminatory method of election and to impose on Fayette taxpayers the costs (so far estimated to exceed at least $1.5 million) of that defense.
“When the voting structure changed in Fayette County to district-based elections, Black voters won their right to elect a representative of their choice to serve them on important local bodies in Fayette County,” says LDF Assistant Counsel Leah Aden. “Today’s decision is another step forward in vindicating the fundamental right to vote of Black voters in Fayette County.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the country’s first and foremost civil and human rights law firm. Founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s mission has always been transformative: to achieve racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society. LDF’s victories established the foundations for the civil rights that all Americans enjoy today. In its first two decades alone, LDF undertook a coordinated legal assault against officially enforced public school segregation. This campaign culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination, widely known as Jim Crow.
LDF has been a separate organization from the NAACP since 1957. Please refer to us as “LDF.”