Newly elected Fayette County Commissioner Pota Coston
Courtesy of Coston for Commissioner

On Nov. 4, 2014, two things happened when voters took to the polls in Fayette County, Ga. First, voters participated in higher numbers than anywhere else in their state. Second, Georgia voters in the recently implemented majority-black district made history by electing their candidate of choice, the first-ever black woman to serve on the County Commission. African-American voters also elected a white male candidate—also their candidate of choice—to the local school board.

This expansion of democracy is a result of nearly 20 years of advocacy by black voters for district voting and a recent successful lawsuit that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund won, requiring Fayette County to conduct its elections for County Commission and school board under a district-based plan. 

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Both bodies previously used at-large voting (pdf) as a structural wall of exclusion, which ensured that black voters could not elect their candidates of choice. Indeed, although African Americans make up 20 percent of the county’s population, are concentrated in the northern part of the county and had run in election after election (as both Democrats and Republicans), no black candidate had ever been elected to either body in the county’s nearly two-century history.  

Until Nov. 4.

Just days after the 46th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which will celebrate its 50th year of protecting people of color from discrimination in voting next year, LDF filed a federal challenge to Fayette’s at-large method of electing members for the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education.

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Applying Section 2 of the VRA, which remains a key protection against discrimination in voting following the Supreme Court’s devastating ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, LDF filed this challenge on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Fayette County NAACP and 10 African-American Fayette County voters.

Because black voters’ preferred candidates are not meaningfully supported by white voters in Fayette, who make up 70 percent of the county’s population, those candidates had been effectively barred from winning in the countywide at-large electoral scheme.

After weighing all the evidence, a federal court ultimately ruled 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 the Voting Right Act violation it found, the federal 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.

Despite this progress, Fayette County continues to defend its racially discriminatory method of election, having appealed the federal court’s ruling and continuing to impose on Fayette taxpayers the costs (so far estimated to be around $1 million) of that defense.

Some members of the County Commission responded to Nov. 4’s election with divisive statements expressing a concern for the diminution of white voting power in the county—despite the fact that under the new district-based method of election, white voters remain the majority of voters in four of five districts. These statements by some of the county’s elected officials demonstrate the lack of regard for black voters who were rendered voiceless in all five districts under the old at-large voting electoral scheme.

In the face of that opposition, black voters in Fayette, now having the opportunity to participate more equally in the political process, turned out to have their voices heard in historic county elections.

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Leah Aden is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She will present oral argument in defense of the district court’s ruling on Dec. 10, 2014, before a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.