Judge finds racial imbalance in Fayette elections
By JIM WALLS
May 21, 2013 — Fayette County commissioners have until June 25 to propose fixes for election practices that a federal judge ruled today are racially discriminatory.
All bets are off, though, if commissioners decide to appeal the ruling, a choice they will discuss in a closed-door session Thursday.
The ruling, if it stands, could lead to a majority-minority commission district in northern Fayette and, potentially, a special election to fill it. Currently, each of the five commissioners must reside in a different district but is chosen by voters countywide.
In today’s decision, U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. found that African-Americans don’t have full access to Fayette’s political process in elections or political appointments, violating the federal Voting Rights Act.
Batten noted that none of 12 African-American candidates has won a race for the commission or board of education in Fayette, where 19.5% of the voting-age population is black. Election results often fall along racial lines, he said, such that even candidates with nearly unanimous support from minority voters have fallen short.
Fayette’s use of staggered terms, numbered posts and residency requirements for commission elections can all dilute minorities’ voting strength, Batten added. Once elected, the commission doesn’t advertise open appointments and often fills vacancies by “just picking some people it knows,” he said.
“Here, it is undisputed that no African-American has ever been elected to the [commission or school board] and that voting in Fayette County is racially polarized,” Batten wrote. Based on those two factors, combined with other aspects of the county’s political process, Batten concluded that African-Americans have fewer opportunities to elect representatives of their choosing.
Plaintiffs had proposed a redistricting plan with a voting-age minority population of 50.22 percent in northern Fayette, a plan attacked by the county’s lawyers as racial gerrymandering.
Batten’s decision devoted much of its 81 pages to discussing and dismissing the county’s various challenges to the methods used to draw that district. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, a discrimination claim would fail if the plaintiffs could not prove that a majority-minority district could be created.
Steve Brown, the commission’s chairman, predicted Tuesday night that he and his colleagues will rely heavily on attorney Anne Lewis’ advice in deciding whether to accept or appeal the ruling.
“If she thinks we’ve got a good chance at winning it, we’ll probably appeal it,” Brown said. “If she says we won’t, we probably won’t.”