Georgia and Fayette County NAACP chapters and 11 county residents filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging that at-large elections have prevented African-Americans from winning seats on the county’s board of commissioners and board of education. Because the practice puts the interests of the whole county ahead of individual neighborhoods, candidates are not nominated based on where they live. Because Fayette County is about 73 percent white and 21 percent African-American, the plaintiffs argue, no Black candidate has ever won a seat on either board, The Associated Press reports.
"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," said Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund's Political Participation Group and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case.
The lawsuit alleges that the at-large voting process violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because it applies or imposes a “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice or procedure" that denies or abridges the right to vote based on race or color. Georgia is one of several Southern states legally required to comply with the Voting Rights Act because of its history of racial discrimination.
The suit also 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, according to the AP report.
David Bositis, senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said that the at-large election process has historically been used to prevent African-Americans from voting.
"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," he told the AP. "The Voting Rights Act is about systems that keep African-Americans from electing the candidates of their choice."
According to Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project for the ACLU, there have been nearly 100 successful challenges to at-large elections in Georgia.
(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Landov)