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Georgia NAACP: At large elections disenfranchise Blacks

By Errin Haines Associated Press | Last updated: Aug 22, 2011 - 8:56:03 AM

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ATLANTA—The Georgia and Fayette County chapters of the NAACP have joined 11 Fayette County voters in a lawsuit against the county's board of commissioners and board of education, alleging that its practice of at-large elections is disenfranchising Black voters.

The federal lawsuit was filed August 9 also lists as defendants the Fayette County Board of Elections. According to the 2010 Census, Fayette County is nearly 73 percent White and 21 percent Black. The lawsuit says that because of the practice, no Black candidate has ever been elected to the county's board of commissioners or board of education.

“Plaintiffs assert that Fayette County's at-large method of electing members to these boards, given the levels of racially polarized voting, guarantees precisely this result,” the lawsuit reads. “Elections in Fayette County show a clear pattern of racially polarized voting. Although Black voters are politically cohesive, bloc voting by other members of the electorate consistently defeats Black-preferred candidates.”

Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund's Political Participation Group and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said the group has been analyzing the latest Census data and how that growth coincides with what they consider to be potential voting schemes. He said the Voting Rights Act is the best vehicle for addressing the issue.

“Fayette County's at-large election method is a structural wall of exclusion that guarantees that Black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their candidates of choice,” Haygood said. “There's no benefit to any system that weakens the voting strength of a jurisdiction's voting rights. That catches our attention.”

Alice Jones, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said she feels disenfranchised. Jones and her husband moved to Fayetteville in 1997, drawn to the old-town feel of the community and the overall quality of life. Soon afterward, the couple became one of the founding members of the county's NAACP chapter.

“I gave them the opportunity to show me that they do have an interest in my community,” said Ms. Jones, 64, whose husband is president of the Fayette County NAACP. “We have not been able to successfully elect a Black candidate, and several have run over the past years. We should have someone to represent our community who is an advocate and doing the right things and making sure that whatever the needs of the community are, they are met.”

The lawsuit calls for the creation of five equally populated election districts, giving Black residents one district where they would comprise the majority of the voting-age population. Most of Fayette County's Black residents reside in the northeastern part of the county.

Carol Chandler, executive assistant to the Fayette County Board of Commissioners, said Aug. 9 she was not yet aware of the lawsuit and could not comment.

Phil Hartley, attorney for the Fayette County Board of Education, said neither he nor the school district had seen the lawsuit and needed to review it before commenting.

Georgia, along with several other Southern states, is legally required to comply with the Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Fayette's at-large voting process violates Section 2 of the act, which prohibits applying or imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice or procedure” that has either the purpose or the result of denying or abridging the right to vote “on account of race or color.”

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies said at-large elections were historically instituted to keep African-Americans from voting in this country.

“If African-Americans were a minority within the larger unit, but of sufficient number in some areas of that unit ... then the county would adopt an at-large system which would have the effect of giving Whites control over who gets elected in the county,” Mr. Bositis said. “The Voting Rights Act is about systems that keep African-Americans from electing the candidates of their choice.”

Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project for the ACLU, said in Georgia alone, there have been nearly 100 successful challenges to at-large elections, most since 1982. He said at-large elections have an enormous impact on minority voters.

“If you have an at-large system and Whites are in the majority and voting is racially polarized, it wouldn't matter if every single Black person who was eligible to vote cast a ballot ... those candidates would never win because they'd never get a majority of the votes,” McDonald said. “If you are not participating effectively in the process, you are not only denied the benefits of government, but you become the victims of it.”

According to the lawsuit, the Fayette County branch of the NAACP was founded in 1997— in part to “address the discriminatory nature” of the county's voting system. The lawsuit points to former Magistrate Judge Charles Floyd, who died in 2010, as the only Black person to have held elected office in the county's history.

Supporters of a district-based system have attempted to address the issue in the state Legislature. State Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone, twice sponsored a bill to divide Fayette into five single-member districts, but the measure was defeated in the House.

“The history has proven that when Black candidates have run, they have been unsuccessful,” Fludd said, noting that Black candidates have run for office as Democrats and Republicans. “It's not as much about political affiliation as it appears to be about race.”