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U.S. Challenges Majority-Vote Rule : Elections: Justice Department says Georgia's requirement is illegal. Practice has 'chilling effect' on blacks in electoral process, suit alleges.

August 10, 1990|RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a major civil rights action, the Justice Department on Thursday sued to overturn Georgia's requirement that a candidate for public office must win a majority in primary and general elections or face a runoff.

The practice has had "a demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of blacks to become candidates for public office," said John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights. The state's majority-vote requirement, similar to that of eight other Southern states, is "an electoral steroid for white candidates," he added.

California, like 40 other states, has a plurality requirement for primary and general elections, in which the candidate who gathers the most votes is nominated or elected.

The government in its suit plans to cite elections in more than 20 Georgia counties where at least 35 black candidates won the most votes in their initial primaries, but then lost in runoffs as voters coalesced around a white opponent. The suit was filed in federal court in Atlanta.

Some political scientists who specialize in Southern voting patterns said that the elimination of the rule will help Republicans, because black candidates will more frequently land the Democrat Party's primary nomination, thus pushing conservative whites toward Republicans in the general election.

"I would suggest the Republican Justice Department in the name of minority rights is pursuing policies that will help Republicans," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

But Dunne said there was no consideration or discussion of possible political fallout from the suit. He said he made a pro forma mention of the suit to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and that he knew of no discussions of the action with the White House. He added that he would be surprised if there had been.

Rob McDuff, a project attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, praised the suit--the first statewide challenge by the Justice Department to a majority-vote requirement--as "a really good sign. It shows that the Justice Department, unlike under the (Ronald) Reagan Administration, is going to be vigorous in challenging discrimination in voting."

The suit alleges that the majority-vote requirement violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution "because it was adopted and has been maintained for racially discriminatory purposes."

Dunne, discussing the suit with reporters, said the Georgia law was adopted in 1964 "for the purpose of impairing the voting strength of minorities." He said the sponsor of the legislation, former Georgia House leader Denmark Groover, had acknowledged in a sworn statement that the purpose was to dilute the power of blacks voting as a bloc.

Blacks, while constituting 26.5% of Georgia's population and 24% of its voting-age population, make up less than 10% of elected officials in the state, Dunne noted.

"Voting in the state of Georgia is racially polarized," the Justice Department said in the suit. "White voters rarely vote for black candidates or candidates identified with black interests, while these candidates generally receive significant support from black voters."

"The majority-vote requirement in the context of racially polarized voting has had racially discriminatory results on black candidates in Georgia, since white citizens constitute a majority of the voters in most electoral contests," the government alleged.

Bills were introduced in the Georgia Legislature in 1986 and 1989 to replace the majority-vote requirement with a plurality for nomination or election. But neither was enacted.

"Georgia has refused to abandon the majority-vote requirement, even though state officials have known, or should have known, that the majority-vote requirement has denied and continues to deny black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice," the suit alleged.

Dunne said the Justice Department came upon the evidence that led to the suit last April when it refused to clear under the Voting Rights Act Georgia's system for electing superior court judges. In that matter, Dunne said that black voting strength was diluted by Georgia's use of at-large circuit elections that required a majority vote for victory.

A suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union for Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks seeks to throw out the majority-vote requirement in every county of the state.

The Justice Department suit named as defendants Gov. Joe Frank Harris, the state board of elections, Secretary of State Max Cleland and various officials of DeKalb County. The county officials were cited as a class representing similar officials in counties where the government alleges that the majority requirement acts to dilute the voting strength of blacks.

The eight other states with majority vote requirements are South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. North Carolina recently shifted to a 40% plurality requirement.

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