1-year delay for Fayette district voting?
Although a federal court judge has ruled that Fayette County must adopt a district voting process to elect representatives to the county commission and the county board of education, the details have yet to be hammered out.
U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten issued an order July 12 for the plaintiffs in the case to respond to several legal arguments raised by the county, including a request to avoid a special election in 2013 using the new district voting format, which instead would be applied in 2014 when the current commission seats go up for re-election.
Plaintiffs, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several county residents, have advocated a special election in November of this year for both the county commission and board of education to give black residents in the county a chance to elect a black member to both governing bodies.
If a special election is ordered by the court, it would in effect put a current county commissioner and a current board of education member in jeopardy of being removed from office without completing the full term they were originally elected to. However, the county already plans to hold a special countywide election this fall, to allow voters to consider a two-year sales tax to fund infrastructure needs for the cities and the county.
The county has also petitioned the court to hold an evidentiary hearing prior to adopting a district voting plan, which would include a district voting map that creates one district that has a majority of minority residents who are of voting age. Judge Batten’s order requires a reply from plaintiffs on those matters as well.
In a lengthy May 21 order, Judge Batten ruled that the county’s at-large voting process was discriminatory to black residents who had been unable to elect a black person to the county commission or board of education in more than 100 years. That order forces the county to switch to a district voting format for the county commission and the county board of education.
Under the current at-large voting format, every voter in the county can cast a ballot for all five seats on both the county board of education and the county commission. District voting, however, would restrict voters to casting a ballot for just one of those five seats: the one corresponding with which geographic district of the county the voter lives in.
District voting would also restrict voters’ current ability to initiate or sign a recall petition for any of the current county commission or board of education members. Under Georgia law and district voting, voters would only be able to initiate or sign a recall petition for the board of education member or county commissioner whose district the voter lives in.
Last year the Fayette County Board of Education entered a settlement in the lawsuit that would have enacted a district voting format, a new district map and included a special election for the fifth district, which is the majority-minority district created on that map. Judge Batten initially signed off on the settlement but later withdrew it because he was unaware that the county commission had not agreed to the settlement. Since then, two of the board of education members who approved that settlement have left office.
Judge Batten’s July 12 order requires the plaintiffs in the case to also respond to the court about the county’s request to give the Georgia legislature the first shot at drafting a remedial district voting plan and whether the court “should consider appropriate redistricting principles in selecting a plan.”
The deadline for the plaintiffs’ response is July 29, as there may be little time to waste to implement a special election this fall, since time needs to be set aside for a qualifying period and a primary election process prior to a general election in November.