Federal judge pushes school board elections to November

Published 2:06 pm Monday, April 9, 2018

By Beth Alston

Part 2
AMERICUS — Federal Court Judge Louis Sr. ruled for Mathis Wright on March 17, 2018, in Wright’s lawsuit against the Sumter County Board of Elections. The judge ruled that the redistricting plan, unanimously approved by the Sumter County Board of Education, and approved by the Georgia Assembly and signed into law, violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then on Friday, March 30, the judge issued another ruling: to move the May 22 Primary Election for school board members to the General Election on Nov. 6, and in the meantime to have the districts reconfigured again and to do away with the two at-large seats, while maintaining a seven-member board.
Wright’s lawsuit stems from the June 10, 2010, decision by the Sumter County Board of Education, which at the time consisted of five white members and four black members, to redraw the districts and reduce the size of the board from nine to five members with two at large. In the election in November 2010, an African American (Kelvin Pless) defeated an incumbent white board member, giving the board a black majority, for the first time.
It was a month later when the board unanimously approved a resolution calling for the state legislature to move to a five-two plan — five districts seats and two at-large seats.
In the judge’s order and findings of fact, he mentions that two board members testified that “they did not knowingly vote to support the addition of two at-large seats. The Court does not find them credible on this point. The resolution was covered extensively in both newspapers and on the radio. Moreover, the resolution was reviewed by the members before the vote. The Court does not believe that responsible board members would vote in support of a resolution to change the board composition with no knowledge of that change entailed.”
The changes were adopted by the General Assembly and signed into law.
In the findings of facts, the judge writes, “On July 31, 2011, the incumbent in District 7, who was not African American, resigned his seat. Michael Lewis, an African American, was appointed to fill the seat, bringing the racial makeup of the Board to six African American members and three white members.
“Shortly after that, the General Assembly redrew the new district boundaries based on the 2010 census. The changes were submitted to the Department of Justice for preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Department found the information submitted insufficient for its analysis and requested additional information from the Board. The Board refused. On Jan. 12, 2012, the Board voted to move from the five-two plan to seven single-member districts, and on Jan. 18, 2012, it voted to withdraw its request for preclearance.”
That left in place the nine single-member districts configuration, but after the results of the 2010 census were revealed, the districts were “malapportioned.”
In June 2010, the federal court granted Mathis Wright’s motion for a preliminary injunction and canceled the 2012 elections for the Sumter County Board of Education. Board members whose terms were expiring after the 2012 elections, were held over, which maintained them the 6-3 black majority.
“On June 25, 2013, the majority’s strategy backfired. The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act … Preclearance was no longer required, and the General Assembly’s post-census plan went into immediate effect. The General Assembly — perhaps out of an abundance of caution — then readopted the same five-two plan through House Bill 836 on Feb. 17, 2014. The bill also moved school board elections from the November general election to the nonpartisan general election held in May. It also adopted a transition procedure: a special election would be held for Districts 1, 2, 4 and 6 as those districts existed under the nine-member plan. Members elected at that special election were to serve only until Dec. 31, 2014, when the new plan would be put into place.”
Today, the Sumter County Board of Education still has its five-two composition. Elections are held each May of even-numbered years and candidates run on a staggered four-three basis.
The judge writes, “African Americans constitute a majority of the voting-age population in two of the five existing school-board districts. They represent 62.7 percent of the voting-age population in District 1 and 70.6 percent of the voting-age population in District 5.”
The Court found that African Americans in Sumter County “have less opportunity to elect candidates of their choice than do white citizens.”
The Court cites five compelling facts:
“(1) The incredibly high rates of polarized voting in races that pit an African American candidate against a white candidate; (2) the glaring lack of success for African American candidates running for county-wise office, both historically and recently, despite their plurality in voting-age population; (3) the undisputed history of discrimination in Sumter County and throughout Georgia; (4) the lingering effects of that discrimination today, including the comparatively low income and education levels and high rates of poverty for African Americans in Sumter County; and (5) the low rates of African American turnout in these elections which — in the absence of evidence to the contrary — the Court attributes to the history of discrimination and the socioeconomic disparities. Because of these factors, the elections for at-large seats do not give African Americans in Sumter County a meaningful opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice.”

See Part 3, and find what’s next.

Over the weekend, a federal district court in Albany ruled in favor of the ACLU and ruled