Whitest, et al. v Crisp County Board of Education
On June 14, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed suit on behalf of a group of Crisp County residents challenging the unlawful dilution of African American voting strength in Crisp County Board of Education elections due to the board’s at-large method of electing board members. The board’s at-large election violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act by denying Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
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 their representative to a particular seat designated to their neighborhood.
Though Black people make up 40.3 percent of registered voters in Crisp County, the board’s 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. In 2017, the school board included 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 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.”
The Defendants agreed to the following facts.
There is a history of discrimination against African Americans in Crisp County and Georgia.
Voting in elections for members of the Board of Education is racially polarized.
The at-large method of electing members of the Board of Education lacks proportionality in that the percentage of districts in which Black voters constitute an effective majority is less than the Black share of Crisp County’s voting-age population.
On August 20, 2021, the Federal District Court wrote
Accordingly, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Black voters in Crisp County have less opportunity than white voters to elect candidates of their choice to the Board of Education and that this constitutes a violation of Section 2.
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
UPDATE 11/17/2021: The Court has set a hearing for December 8, 2021, to discuss implementing new district lines for Crisp County School Board before 2022.
Hearing set for 12/8/22 to discuss implementing new district lines
June 14, 2017
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, Inc.