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At-large voting is an ongoing source of friction

POSTED: June 9, 2013 12:34 a.m.

Fayette County is fighting back after a court decision in May ruled the county’s at-large voting system discriminated against black voters.

At-large voting systems have been targets for civil rights disputes because a minority group’s votes for one candidate can be overwhelmed by a majority group’s votes for another.

Gainesville’s at-large system was challenged in the 1990s and early 2000s, and now it’s being challenged again, although not yet in court.

The key to whether a voting method is legal or discriminatory can depend several factors, including population, diversity and intent. A political science professor said the size of the city or county is important.

“It depends on the racial makeup,” Steve Anthony, a lecturer with Georgia State University.

Georgia Municipal Association numbers show 386 cities in the state that use at-large systems. About 117 cities use district style voting and 33 use a combination of both.

That number is much lower for counties; just 23 of 159 counties in the state vote at-large to elect commissioners, according to data from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. About 116 counties in the state use district voting, 23 use at-large and 12 use a combination.

The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials has disputed the legality of Gainesville’s at-large voting system since around 2011. GALEO officials have said the at-large system, which allows all residents to choose city council members in each ward, dilutes Gainesville’s Latino population to elect the leaders of its choice.

The city has five wards, and the positions of mayor and two city council seats are up for election this year. The Gainesville School Board elections are divided by district. Black voters challenged the at-large system, but lost in court.

“The issue becomes when there is a distinct racial-ethnic minority group, where is there is racial polarization, where is a history of discrimination that the Section 2 Voting Rights (Act) cases apply,” GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez said. “In it of itself, at-large voting isn’t discriminatory.”

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority group. Most of the cases under Section 2 involved challenges to at-large election schemes, but also applies to other situations, the U.S. Department of Justice website said.

The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment for this story.

Anthony said the larger the city or county, the more likely a voting system would be by district, where voters from one district choose a representative just for that area. Districts are redrawn every 10 years when the census is held to make sure the lines are fair and legal. Some cities and counties have just single-member districts or precincts.

A Voting Rights Initiative, a 2005 faculty-staff research project at the University of Michigan Law School, identified some federal court cases where voting systems were challenged between 1982 and 2005. The report cites several cases in Georgia, including the cities and counties of LaGrange, Rome, Chatman and Ben Hill.

Gainesville’s attorney in the its dispute with GALEO is Robert Brinson, who helped Rome fight off a challenge to its at-large system in 1997. Brinson represented Gainesville in the earlier challenges to its system.

Because of Gainesville’s growth and increased Hispanic population, the city is ripe for a lawsuit, Anthony said.

“If they go to court again, the contesting side has a better chance of winning,” he said.


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