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New Fayette district voting map is proposed

Timing a concern as qualifying starts March 3 for two county commission posts and two school board seats

A proposed new district map for the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education, crucial to enacting district voting here, has been proposed by a U.S. District Judge.

The new map is necessary to comply with the May decision of U.S. District Court Judge Timothy C. Batten which declared the county’s former at-large voting system violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

[View that pdf by clicking on the "attachment" below.]

Batten’s ruling requires the county to switch to district voting and adopt a five-district map that creates one majority-minority district to virtually guarantee that a black person will win election to the county commission and the board of education.

The big question is whether any new district voting map will be enacted in time for this year’s elections, as qualifying for the primary election starts March 3. That’s just two weeks after a hearing on the court’s proposed map which is slated for Feb. 18.

If the new district map can’t be enacted in time for primary qualifying, there is a chance that U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten could order a stay on qualifying and/or set new dates for the election.

The good news is that the majority-minority fifth district seats are up for election this year between Post 5 BoE incumbent Leonard Presberg and Post 5 commission incumbent Allen McCarty. Also up for election this year are Post 4 BoE member Bob Todd and Post 4 commissioner Steve Brown. Todd said Monday night he would decline to seek re-election.

The plaintiffs in the district voting lawsuit asked the court to adopt a district map that excludes the Post 5 incumbents from the fifth district to cut out the advantage an incumbent has in seeking re-election. The new map does not take that wish into account, as Presberg and McCarty’s homes are part of the new majority-minority fifth district as proposed by the court.

That fifth district stretches into two directions east of Fayetteville, cutting deep into north Fayette County for a wide swath of land and continuing westward in the unincorporated county and then south for a bit into the town of Tyrone.

The court sought the assistance of the Legislative and Congressional Reappointment Office of the Georgia Legislature in creating the proposed map.

The district voting lawsuit was filed more than two years ago by several Fayette citizens and also the Fayette County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which argued that the county’s at-large voting process was a significant barrier to electing a black representative to the county commission and the board of education.

Batten agreed and last May ordered that Fayette County switch the commission and board of education elections to a district voting format. The change means that Fayette residents will no longer be able to vote for all five members of each governing body. Instead they will only be able to vote for the geographic post corresponding with where they live.

It also means that voters will only head to the polls once every four years to vote for county commission and BoE members instead of once every two years, since they will only be able to vote for one of the five seats on each governing body. Seats on the board of education and county commission are for four-year terms.

The district map is an essential component of district voting because the special district must be drawn to comprise a majority of black voters, which would — in the court’s theory — guarantee that particular district will elect a black candidate.

While minority candidates have run in recent years for office on both the county commission and board of education, they have been unable to win acceptance of many voters beyond the precincts dominated by African-American electors.

Batten in his order decreeing the switch to district voting noted that no African American has ever been elected to the board of education or county commission here.

The end result of the at-large voting was that black residents were “denied meaningful access to the political process on account of race or color,” Batten wrote.

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.

While district voting will limit the number of candidates a Fayette voter will be able to cast a ballot for, it will also make it more difficult for all Fayette voters to attempt a recall vote of an elected official. To recall a candidate, Georgia law requires that the citizens signing the recall petition, and those who are allowed to vote on the matter, be a voter in that particular district.

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