FAY, Circuit Judge:
This appeal involves a challenge to the sole commissioner form of county government utilized in Bleckley County, Georgia. Following a four day bench trial, the district court found that the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden of proof on both their statutory and constitutional claims. For the reasons that follow, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court.
A. Bleckley County
The history of Bleckley County began in 1912 when the Georgia legislature created Bleckley County from land located at the northeastern end of Pulaski County, Georgia. Encompassing about 219 square miles, Bleckley County is a rural county located in the central region of Georgia, approximately forty miles southeast of Macon.
Throughout its existence, Bleckley County has had a population that has ranged from about 9,000 residents to nearly 11,000 residents. According to census figures, the population of Bleckley County numbered 10,767 in 1980.
Since its creation, Bleckley County has operated with a sole commissioner form of county government. See 1912 Ga.Laws 38; 1913 Ga.Laws 345. This sole commissioner is the "county governing authority" under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. § 1-3-3(7), and he is vested with all the corresponding powers and duties, see id. § 36-5-22.1.
Bleckley County's sole commissioner is elected in an at-large county-wide election. Although the commissioner race has at times been subjected to a majority vote requirement, throughout most of its history, Bleckley County has elected its sole commissioner by a simple plurality vote. Since 1964, however, the county must elect its commissioner by a majority vote. See O.C.G.A. § 21-2-501.
Today, the election for county commissioner is held at the Jaycee Barn in Cochran. This facility, a building belonging to an all-white civic club, is the sole polling place for the entire 219 square mile area that makes up Bleckley County.
B. Procedural History
On July 17, 1985, the plaintiffs-appellants in this case, black voters residing in Bleckley County, Georgia, together with the NAACP Chapter of Cochran/Bleckley County, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. Among the claims asserted, the plaintiffs presented a challenge to Bleckley County's form of county government under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973, and under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
In December of 1989, over four years after this action was commenced, the district court tried this case without a jury. On March 7, 1991, more than a year after that trial, the district court entered an extensive order finding that the plaintiffs had failed to establish either a racially discriminatory intent in the creation or maintenance of Bleckley County's form of government or an impermissible dilution of the electoral power of Bleckley County's black minority. The district court entered a final judgment for the defendants, and the plaintiffs filed a timely appeal.
In reviewing the judgment of the district court, we are bound by the clearly erroneous test set forth in Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the standard upon which an appellate court is to review ultimate factual findings of vote dilution. Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 78-79, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 2781, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986); Carrollton Branch of NAACP v. Stallings, 829 F.2d 1547, 1554 (11th Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 936, 108 S.Ct. 1111, 99 L.Ed.2d 272 (1988). Nonetheless, this standard does not bar a court from correcting errors of law or findings of fact based on misconceptions of the law. Gingles, 478 U.S. at 79, 106 S.Ct. at 2781; Concerned Citizens v. Hardee County Bd. of Comm'rs, 906 F.2d 524, 526 (11th Cir. 1990); Stallings, 829 F.2d at 1554.
A. The Voting Rights Act
The statutory claim we address on appeal is unusual in that it challenges a local form of government composed solely of one commissioner.
The essential dictate of § 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as amended, is:
42 U.S.C. § 1973(a). At one time, § 2 was interpreted to require proof of discriminatory intent in the design or maintenance of a challenged scheme before plaintiffs could prevail on their statutory claims. City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55, 100 S.Ct. 1490, 64 L.Ed.2d 47 (1980) (plurality opinion). In 1982, however, Congress amended § 2 so as to make clear that the "results test" utilized by pre-Bolden courts is the proper standard by which § 2 claims are to be measured. See Chisom v. Roemer, ___ U.S. ___, 111 S.Ct. 2354, 2363 & n. 21, 115 L.Ed.2d 348 (1991); Gingles, 478 U.S. at 43-44 & n. 8, 106 S.Ct. at 2762 & n. 8; Solomon v. Liberty County, 899 F.2d 1012, 1015 (11th Cir.1990) (en banc) (Kravitch, J., specially concurring), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 111 S.Ct. 670, 112 L.Ed.2d 663 (1991); id. at 1027-32 (Tjoflat, C.J., specially concurring). In amending § 2, Congress also made clear that courts are to evaluate § 2 claims in light of "the totality of circumstances" upon which such claims are premised. 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b). Accordingly, courts are to consider a wide variety of factors when confronted with § 2 challenges.
Although the Gingles Court set forth these three factors as preconditions to a § 2 claim, we are mindful that "[t]he essence of a § 2 claim is that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives." Id. at 47, 106 S.Ct. at 2764. A limitation on the evidence to be considered in evaluating the Gingles factors is neither what Congress intended in § 2 nor what the Supreme Court directed in Gingles. Rather, the Gingles decision places a "gloss" on the Senate Report factors, limiting the use of the factors by requiring that the three Gingles factors be established to prove a vote dilution claim. Stallings, 829 F.2d at 1555 (citing Collins v. City of Norfolk, 816 F.2d 932 (4th Cir.1987)). The Gingles majority did not, however, limit the manner in which the threshold factors may be proven. In fact, the legislative history of § 2 reveals that Congress espoused a "flexible, factintensive test for § 2 violations." Gingles, 478 U.S. at 46, 106 S.Ct. at 2764. Thus, the totality of the circumstances surrounding a § 2 claim may properly be considered when determining whether plaintiffs have established the three Gingles preconditions.
B. Gingles Analysis
On appeal, the plaintiffs-appellants argue that: (1) the district court erred as a matter of law by limiting its consideration to only
(1) Size and Geographic Compactness of Minority Group
The evidence presented at trial reveals that black voters comprise a majority of the electorate in one of the five districts currently found in Bleckley County.
Although § 2 clearly states that "nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population," 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b), it is appropriate to consider the size and geographical compactness of the minority group within a restructured form of the challenged system when the existing structure is being challenged as dilutive. In Gingles, the Supreme Court recognized that threshold significance is given to this first Gingles factor because: "Unless minority voters possess the potential to elect representatives in the absence of the challenged structure or practice, they cannot claim to have been injured by that structure or practice." 478 U.S. at 50 n. 17, 106 S.Ct. at 2766 n. 17 (second emphasis added). Thus, before a voting rights injury can be established, the minority group must demonstrate its potential electoral power in the absence of the challenged structure. It is therefore highly relevant to the Gingles inquiry "whether black voters ... are sufficiently numerous and compact to constitute a majority in a single member district, if single member districts were created out of the one county district." Stallings, 829 F.2d at 1563 (emphasis added). For that reason, this court remanded a challenge to the sole commissioner structure in Carroll County, Georgia to the district court with instructions to consider size and geographic compactness within proposed three member and five member forms of commission government. Id.
Because the evidence in this case reveals that Bleckley County's black voters are sufficiently numerous and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district (e.g., District 2), we agree with the district court that the first Gingles factor has been satisfied.
(2) Existence of Racial Bloc Voting
In analyzing the issue of racial bloc voting, the district court focussed on raw election figures and statistical calculations. In particular, the district court concentrated on regression analysis statistics from the 1984 presidential primary and on exit poll data from the 1988 presidential primary, evidence taken from presidential primaries involving the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The court also looked to the successes of local black politician Willie Basby in Cochran
However, the district court reached this conclusion while operating under a misconception of the law. The district court stated that "under prevailing law with regard to this stage of the court's evaluation, the evidence [from the 1984 and 1988 presidential primaries] is all the court has or can have." Hall, 757 F.Supp. at 1580 (citing Collins, 816 F.2d at 935). The court reasoned that non-electoral evidence "does not bear directly upon the courts [sic] analysis of whether election results evidence racial bloc voting." Id. at 1579 (footnote omitted). Although the district court's legal interpretation of the evidence would support the district court's ultimate conclusion, such restricted, piecemeal consideration of the evidence failed to take into account the synergistic effects of evidence in establishing racially polarized voting.
Here, non-electoral evidence was not being offered to rebut electoral evidence showing the existence of racially polarized voting; instead, it was offered to buttress such evidence. Moreover, the use of non-expert testimony and non-statistical evidence has been approved by this court as a means of proving racially polarized voting. See, e.g., Stallings, 829 F.2d at 1558 (noting that it is "clearly acceptable" to use non-expert testimony in establishing racially polarized voting); United States v. Marengo County Comm'n, 731 F.2d 1546, 1567 n. 34 (11th Cir.) (quoting Nevett v. Sides, 571 F.2d 209, 223 n. 18 (5th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 446 U.S. 951, 100 S.Ct. 2916, 64 L.Ed.2d 807 (1980)), cert. denied and appeal dismissed, 469 U.S. 976, 105 S.Ct. 375, 83 L.Ed.2d 311 (1984); see also Westwego Citizens for Better Gov't v. City of Westwego, 946 F.2d 1109, 1118 (5th Cir. 1991). But see Collins, 816 F.2d at 935-36 (rejecting the use of causation evidence concerning voting patterns). In situations where election data and derivative statistical information are systemically unavailable, such as when plaintiff minority groups are unable to sponsor candidates, the Supreme Court has further directed courts to rely on factors beyond election data that tend to prove unequal access to the electoral process. See Gingles, 478 U.S. at 57 n. 25, 106 S.Ct. at 2770.
In this case, the district court was not confronted with a complete lack of relevant election and statistical information. Indeed, Bleckley County election results for races in which blacks ran for state and national offices were submitted into evidence. Similarly, election results were submitted for races in which blacks ran for office in the city of Cochran.
The district court did, however, recognize the following: "The regression analysis [of the 1984 presidential primary] demonstrates that white and black voters did not agree upon whom the democratic party should nominate. Jesse Jackson enjoyed the electoral support of a majority of black voters; very few white voters supported Jesse Jackson." Hall, 757 F.Supp. at 1576. That conclusion resulted from regression analysis data revealing that 60.8% of black voters supported Jackson while only 0.9% of white voters supported Jackson.
Election results in the city of Cochran reveal that black candidates were regularly
Evidence was also presented of elections involving racial themes: the 1974 Lt. Gubernatorial race involving J.B. Stoner, an avowed white racist; the 1966 and 1974 Gubernatorial races involving Lester Maddox, a former governor who had built his political career on segregation; and the 1968 presidential race involving then-segregationist George Wallace. Although these elections occurred over fifteen years prior to the trial of this case, the significant support garnered by these candidates indicates that a substantial number of Bleckley County's voters were highly susceptible to racist, segregationist appeals as late as the mid 1970's, and that they voted accordingly.
A number of the district court's other specific factual findings, coupled with election evidence, reveal that Bleckley County indeed suffers from racially polarized voting. For instance, Bleckley County had enforced racial segregation in all aspects of local government and local government services until forced to change by federal legislation in the 1960's. Id. at 1562. Bleckley County had debated and fought desegregation in all aspects of public life, continuing its resistance until as late as the early 1970's. See id. Local government had deprived blacks of the opportunity to participate in public life and government, even prohibiting blacks from registering to vote and from voting until well into the 1960's. Although Bleckley County's government discontinued these overt racial practices, largely due to federal intervention, the black citizens of Bleckley County continue to suffer from the effects of discrimination — socio-economic conditions that are far more depressed than those of their white counterparts.
In its Gingles threshold analysis, the district court decided not to consider any of the evidence presented by the plaintiffs other than the presidential primary election data for 1984 and 1988. It discounted the value of that data and found it insufficient to establish racial bloc voting. The court also chose to discount the value of elections in the city of Cochran, with the possible exception of the successes of Willie Basby. Other evidence was neither considered nor discussed within the scope of the Gingles analysis because the court believed that it was prohibited from considering the evidence in evaluating the plaintiffs' compliance with the Gingles factors. These decisions were the crucial errors committed by the district court as a result of its misconception of the law.
When the evidence found in the record is analyzed within the proper legal framework, i.e., the totality of the circumstances is reviewed for its impact upon the issue of racially polarized voting,
(3) Existence of Political Cohesiveness
Upon reviewing the record in this case, we also hold that the district court erred in concluding that Bleckley County lacks a politically cohesive black electorate. In reviewing this Gingles factor, the district court essentially committed the same error that it committed in analyzing the issue of racial bloc voting. That error was further compounded because the district court evaluated the existence of political cohesiveness after concluding that there was no racially polarized voting in Bleckley County. We have previously noted that "proof of racial polarization may ... be found sufficient by this Court to make the necessary finding of cohesiveness." Stallings, 829 F.2d at 1563 n. 15. Nonetheless, the record evidence and the specific factual findings of the district court, coupled with the existence of racially polarized voting, conclusively reveal that the Gingles requirement of political cohesiveness has been satisfied.
C. Violation of § 2 in Bleckley County
The district court not only erred in its legal analysis of the Gingles threshold factors, but it also erred in its "brief" final analysis of the plaintiffs' § 2 claim. That final analysis of the plaintiffs' claim under the totality of the circumstances, undertaken despite the court's conclusion that the Gingles factors had not been met, was seriously flawed. The flaw resulted from the premise upon which the district court operated: that the three Gingles factors had not been satisfied and were, in fact, unsupportive of the plaintiffs' case.
However, we find that the plaintiffs satisfied the Gingles test. At a minimum,
Having concluded that the district court erred in failing to enter judgment for the plaintiffs, we REVERSE the district court and REMAND for the imposition of a remedy.
S.Rep. No. 97-417, 97th Cong., 2d Sess. 28-29 (1982), reprinted in 1982 U.S.C.C.A.N. 177, 206-07 (footnotes omitted). The Senate Report also noted that additional factors had been shown to have probative value in establishing a violation:
Id. at 29, reprinted in 1982 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 207 (footnotes omitted). Despite the Senate's express enumeration of these typical factors, "this list of factors is neither comprehensive nor exclusive." Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 45, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1980). Other factors may be considered, and a "functional" view of the political process will determine the interplay and weight of the various relevant factors. See id.
Still, the district court did not properly discount Basby's successes despite Basby's aberrational status and despite Basby's own assertions that he could not achieve the same success on a county-wide basis. Instead, the court considered his campaigns, although not "as rebuttal evidence against a showing that blacks have not fared well in elections in Bleckley County." Id. at 1574 n. 24. The many and much more common defeats of other black candidates were relegated to the following level of consideration: "The court also takes note of the city council elections in which other black candidates did not fare so well, i.e., plaintiff Harris (1977), plaintiff Hall (1978), etc." Id. Notably, there were 12 at-large elections in which blacks ran losing campaigns in Cochran against white candidates. Basby, on the other hand, was elected over white candidates on 3 occasions: once with 39% of the vote, once with 50.5% of the vote, and once with 70% of the vote.