How Did Washington Get Two Voting Districts? It Started with a Lawsuit Over Voting Rights.

Published on 31 October 2023 at 13:07

On August 20, 1992, Reverend G.L Avery (branch president for the Washington, Georgia NAACP), Katie Evans and Clara Blackwell, all African American citizens of Washington, Georgia, filed a lawsuit against the mayor, Ed Pope Sr., and city council of the city of Washington. They were represented by attorneys Kathleen L. Wilde, Laughlin McDonald, Neil Bradley, and Mary Wyckoff of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (ACLU).


The complaint stated that according to the 1990 census, the population of Washington was 4,279. The percentage of the population made up by African Americans was 60% or 2,566 citizens. In April of 1989, the city council voted unanimously to proceed with planning for election districts to help ensure African American citizens of Washington had equal representation on city council, but no action had been taken to create those districts. The next election was to be in the coming November. Three council members were to be elected for five-year terms. Also at that time, elections were done “at large” meaning every citizen voted for each candidate elected to mayor and city council. There were six council members, as there are now but three were elected every two years and served a term of four years. Only one of the council members, at the time, was African American.


At the time the lawsuit was filed, there was a preclearance requirement in place that was in section 5 of the voting rights act of 1965. This meant that any redistricting could not be implemented unless it was approved by the Attorney General of the United States or the federal district court in Washington D.C.  That requirement changed On June 25, 2013, when the United States Supreme Court, in the Shelby County decision, decided it was unconstitutional.


The complaint also stated that “there has been a history of private and official discrimination against African Americans in the City of Washington, in Wilkes County and in the State of Georgia, including discrimination against blacks attempting to exercise their right of franchisee and to participate equally with whites in the political process.” The complaint continues to allege that there continued to be effects of racial discrimination in areas of education, employment, housing, and health, which hinders their ability to participate effectively in the political process and that voting in the City of Washington is “racially polarized.” Specific examples of this discrimination were not provided.


At the time of the lawsuit, the complaint read that qualified African American candidates had run for city council, county board of commissioners and the board of education but only one served on city council, none had ever been elected to county commission and only one had ever been elected to the board of education. Avery, Evans, and Blackwell asked the court to issue a judgement that the current method of elections violated their rights and to affect a “racially fair plan” for elections going forward.


Evidence submitted showed election results beginning in 1969 and ending in the 1991 election. The first time an African American was elected to city council was Eligah Anderson in 1981. In 1988 two African Americans were elected. You can view one of those documents below this article.


On August 21, 1992, an agreement was reached between the plaintiffs and the city council and mayor. The city council would consist of six members to be elected from two districts. “District 1 shall be composed of 2154 persons, 1978 (91.83%) of whom are black and 173 (8.03%) of whom are white. District 2 shall consist of 2121 persons, 588 (27.72% of whom are black and 1520 (71.66%) of whom are white. Each district shall elect three members to the city council. Candidates should reside in their respective districts and be voted on only by the residents of such districts.”


It states the mayor was to be elected by the residents at large. The plan was to be implemented with the November 10, 1992, election. The board of elections were to notify voters in which of the two voting districts they resided in, no later than 45 days prior to the November 1992 election. The districting plan had to be submitted to the United States Department of Justice.


In the submission to the Department of Justice for approval, attorney Kathleen Wilde who was representing Avery, Evans and Blackwell stated, “It is anticipated that the new election plan will improve the opportunity for black citizens to elect candidates to the city council.” She refers to district 1 as “the black community and says they will be able to elect three of the six council members from a 90+% black district. She went on to say, “As the black community becomes more active politically…It is possible that the black community could also determine who is elected as mayor.” Eleven years later, Washington would elect Willie Burns, the first African American mayor in its 231 year history.


The agreement in 1992 to create two districts that are purposefully divided along racial lines, as still is the geography of Washington, did allow for better representation of citizens of the black community. There have been three black representatives and three white representatives elected to city council since that time. There has never been a white citizen elected to represent district 1 nor a black citizen to represent district 2, although black and white citizens have run in both districts. In fact, two current candidates for mayor have run for city council in their district. Bruce Bailey has run twice for city council in district 1 and Angela Booker ran for a council seat in district 2. Neither won those elections.


Many complain it has also lead to a situation where there are clear differences in agendas between the representatives of the two districts and there isn’t enough collaboration when it comes to implementing policies and getting things done. Votes on motions brought to the city council too often result in a vote of 3-3 with the mayor breaking the tie. This has made the position of the mayor, crucial in the ability of the council to get things done. In the case of our current administration, mayor Bill deGolian has voted predominately in agreement with the councilmen in district 2. One notable example was the January 2023 city council meeting where the mayor broke a tie vote in favor of striking all of district 1 councilmen Nathaniel Cullars Sr. and Maceo Mahoney’s items off the agenda.


This tie breaking authority may be one of the reasons this year’s mayoral race has been more heated than some other elections. It has become  expected that the council will likely be divided along racial lines and that there historically have been fundamental disagreements on what should be done with the city’s resources. District 1 councilmen have made multiple attempts to reduce utility rates and fees for example, with district 2 councilmen voting against these efforts nearly every time they were presented. A twice a year rebate, suggested by city administrator, Jerry deBin was something the district 2 councilmen were willing to agree to but district 1 councilmen have continued to make motions to reduce fees and rates that are voted down by district 2 and with the mayor breaking the tie against the motions as well.


Until 2003, when Willie Burns was elected as the first black mayor of Washington, the position of mayor, wielded more authority than it does today. When Burns was elected, the council voted to change the city charter to what is referred to as a “weak mayor” system. Prior to Burns being elected, the mayor had the ability to appoint the chief of police and the city clerk. The mayor does still appoint citizens to the more than 20 boards, commissions and authorities that have a great deal of power over what happens in every facet of Washington from the healthcare that is delivered to the recreational opportunities offered to our children and youth. African Americans are grossly underrepresented when you look at who sits on these boards as a whole.


The 2023 municipal election is unique in that there are many seats open and many candidates running for those seats. There are both black and white candidates running in both districts and three candidates for mayor. Candidate Ken Parris told me that when he qualified to run for mayor, he was told by more than one citizen living in district 2 “You will split the white vote.” He was even called by someone he doesn’t wish to name, who told him he needed to drop out of the race because Bruce Bailey had been chosen to run and there should only be one white candidate running to ensure a district 2 candidate wins the mayor's seat. When Willie Burns became mayor in 2003 there were three white candidates running in district 2.


There were also efforts made in district 1 to have just one candidate. Both Maceo Mahoney and Angela Booker made it known before qualification that they were considering a run for mayor. A debate was held where Mahoney and Booker were given a chance to speak about why there wanted to run for mayor, long before the qualification period, in an effort to rally around one candidate.


It is clear the decision in 1992 to create two districts, one predominantly black and the other predominantly white, has improved representation of the more than 62% African American citizens in Washington, on the city council. The question is, has that representation lead to a more equitable way of life in Washington or has it amplified division?


This is part one of a two part series. In part 2, I will speak with citizens and former and current elected officials about the two-district system and how or if Washington can become more unified.


Reported by Michelle Chaffee





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