There was passion and fire from the community on both ends of the district voting debate at Tuesday’s Board of Elections meeting. In the end, there was no choice for the board to make. A special election to replace County Commissioner Pota Coston will be held Tuesday, September 15, and voting will be done at-large.
After a lengthy public comment session from a standing room crowd, County Attorney Dennis Davenport spoke about the complicated voting issue and the board’s lack of options.
“This is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of following the rule of law,” said Davenport.
District voting was set in place for the 2014 election following a district court level ruling that at-large voting was a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Pota Coston was among those elected under district voting. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals since overturned that initial ruling and sent it back to the district level, meaning the new district voting and map were overturned, putting the previous map and at-large voting back in place until a future hearing. The Court of Appeals could have also overturned the results of the election but declined.
The Board of Elections is bound by the letter of the law, and, currently, at-large voting is the law for the county. It is the board’s job merely to officially call the special election.
Board member Darryl Hicks asked if they could set the election with the stipulation that it be done with district voting. Davenport explained that, because the district maps were overturned, it would be impossible to make that decision.
“You’re asking what would happen if you vote for something that doesn’t exist,” said Davenport of the 2014 map and a voting method that is not approved. “Quite frankly, the issue before you is the date of the election. I would think, first of all, if your jurisdiction does not include changing a method of voting and selecting a map, and it does not, that would be ignored.”
Essentially, whether they wanted to make a change or not, the Board of Elections has no power to do so.
“The fact of the matter is, the election date is what is the crucial duty that you have before you today,” said Davenport. “And even that date is not up to your discretion. That date is also set by state law.”
Nearly 30 citizens took part in public comments, a clear majority speaking about the need to preserve district voting. Among those represented were leaders of the Fayette Visioning Initiative and the Chamber of Commerce, both among those concerned by the negative impact a return to at-large voting could have on the county’s image among businesses.
“The Chamber acknowledges that we have no expertise in the legalities of the election law and await the outcome of the legal process, but, if there is a decision to be made by the Fayette County Board of Elections or County Commission on this special election, it is to the advantage of the business community to minimalize the disruption that going back to an at-large vote for the special election will cause and focus on maintaining a positive business climate in Fayette County,” said Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce.
After an hour and forty-five minutes of public comments, the board members and attorney began their discussion, leading to the 2-1 vote, with Hicks voting against, to call for the special election to replace Pota Coston.
“My personal feeling has nothing to do with any decision I would make today,” said Board Chairman Marilyn Watts. “If the method of voting needs to be changed, it’s not up to us, in my point of view.”