ATLANTA (CN) — In a rural Georgia county where Black voters are outnumbered by whites 2 to 1 at the polls despite being the majority population, an 11th Circuit dug into the thorny question Wednesday of whether discrimination is the only explanation.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Julie Carnes, an Obama appointee, hearkened back to the 1984 case United States v. Marengo County courts to quote the assumption “that a lack of success, even when there was Black voter strength, suggests that remnants of prior discrimination were present.”
“We’re 36 years past that now,” Carnes continued. “At what point do we no longer indulge that presumption? At what point can we say that the reason a Black group of voters who are a majority [don’t vote] is simply attributable to voter apathy, not to the remnants of discrimination?”
Not here, replied Bryan Sells, an Atlanta-based attorney who is fighting, on behalf of the Rev. Mathis Wright Jr., how the Sumter County Board of Elections holds elections.
“This is not a case where there is a shred of factual evidence that Black voters have overcome the history of discrimination that lingers even today,” Sells said.
Wright brought his suit after Sumter’s 2014 election ended the county’s first Black majority on the board. Today the county seeks a reversal of the holding that unfairly drawn voting districts are to blame, giving Black residents “less opportunity to elect candidates of their choice than” white residents.
Senior U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands issued his ruling in 2018 after a four-day bench trial where the data show that white voters have outnumbered Black voters in general elections for the Sumter school board “by an almost two-to-one margin since 1996.” County-wide though, the population is closely split along racial lines: 46.7% of active registered voters are white and 48.5% are Black.
“There can also be no doubt that the level of black participation in Sumter County politics is depressed,” Sands wrote. “In the elections analyzed in the case, African Americans were on average over 60% less likely than their white counterparts to cast a vote.”
Sells at oral arguments Wednesday pointed to trial testimony showing “present-day racial animus in the community, present-day socioeconomic disparities that result from the past discrimination and present-day depressed participation.”
“There has never been a moment of parity in Sumter County. … The discrimination in Sumter County is not ancient history but present-day reality,” Sells said. “The court found, and it’s not clearly erroneous and it’s frankly not disputed, that there is persistent racial separation in religious, civic and social organizations in Sumter County.”
Carnes noted that this year’s particularly charged presidential election could lay the facts bare.
“We have a fairly good test of this in November,” Carnes said. “If it turns out that we look at Sumter County voting and we see that we can determine that Black voters did use their majority clout and did vote for the candidate of their choice, [will that] give us some insight into whether this extra little bit of handicapping and help that they’re perceived to need may not be needed at all?”
Arguing on behalf of the Sumter County Board of Elections Wednesday, attorney Richard Raile disagreed, telling the panel that he believed waiting until November would be “unwise.”
“I don’t think the court is going to be much differently situated in November,” he said, “and I think the cost to the county in sitting here for another several weeks waiting for another election to pass, possibly having to undergo special elections if we ultimately prevail — it really outweighs the advantage that might in some cases be drawn from that course of action.”
Raile, who is with the firm Baker & Hostetler, urged the court to come to quick decision in the case, saying that it might not be too late for the county to revert back to the previous map ahead of the November general election.
The county says it deserves a reversal.
“Section 2 affords equal opportunity, not equal success. It guarantees participation, not outcome,” Raile said.
Carnes was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Britt Grant and Stanley Marcus, appointed by Trump and Clinton, respectively. They did not give a timeline for their ruling.
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