The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the ACLU Voting Rights Project and the Law Office of Bryan L. Sells today filed suit on behalf of a group of Crisp County residents against the Crisp County Board of Education for violating Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act by denying Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process through its at-large method of electing Board of Education members.
Currently, Crisp County Board of Education members are elected “at-large,” meaning each of the school board seats is elected by the entire district, instead of “single-member,” which would allow voters to elect a representative to a particular seat designated to their neighborhood. Though Black people make up 40.3 percent of registered voters in Crisp County, the at-large system usually results in candidates for the Board of Education that are preferred by Black voters getting defeated by the white majority voting as a bloc. The current school board includes 5 white members and 1 Black member.
“Some of the most consequential decisions that affect people’s daily lives are made by local school board members, and all voters should have an equal opportunity to have a voice in that process,” said ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young. “The Board of Education’s at-large voting method puts Black voters at a disadvantage by diluting the power of their vote and discouraging them from running for office. This must change to ensure all voters have an equal opportunity to be represented.”
At-large systems have historically been used as a racially discriminatory tool to ensure that Black voters, when they are a minority of the voting population, are almost never able to elect a candidate of their choice. In 1982, Congress amended Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that electoral systems such as at-large elections could be struck down when they have a discriminatory effect, even if discriminatory intent could not be proved.
The suit filed today asks the court to strike down the current at-large voting method and prevent the Board from holding future elections until it adopts a redistricting plan that complies with the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, creating six single-member districts, in which each Board member is elected by a single district of Crisp County, will help ensure Black people have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice. Black voters can constitute a majority in one or more of these potential single-member districts.
“Crisp County’s at-large voting system for school board elections has the effect, purposeful or not, of discriminating against Black voters,” said ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Sean J. Young. “This system needs to be reformed to comply with the Voting Rights Act and ensure all eligible voters have an equal opportunity to have their voices heard moving forward.”
“I’ve seen first-hand how the at-large voting system has prevented Black voters from being fairly represented on the Board of Education,” said plaintiff Curtis Lucas, who taught in the local public school system for 38 years and lost an election for the Board of Education in 2016. “As a result, Black people make up more than 40 percent of Crisp County’s population, but only 16 percent of the Board of Education. This needs to change.”
“This is about fairness – for students, parents, staff, and everyone who will benefit from a Board of Education that truly represents the population it serves,” said plaintiff Mathew Whitest, M.D. “Replacing the current at-large system with single-member districts will result in fairer elections and a more effective Board.”