Fulton County political battle embodies Voting Rights Act issues

Republicans say their plan to redraw Fulton County Commission districts is an overdue attempt to give North Fulton residents a greater voice in county affairs. Democrats say it’s an attempt to seize power by diluting the strength of minority voters.

The U.S. Department of Justice is likely to decide who’s right – if the Supreme Court lets it.

On Wednesday the court will hear arguments in a case challenging a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a defining achievement of the civil rights movement led by Atlanta’s own Martin Luther King Jr. Under Section 5 of the act, state and local governments with a history of discrimination must get federal approval before implementing redistricting and other changes affecting elections.

Armed with that provision, the Justice Department has rejected election changes in Georgia nearly 180 times, including eight times in Fulton County. The Fulton redistricting proposal could be awaiting Justice Department approval when the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the Section 5 “preclearance” requirement.

The Voting Rights Act profoundly reshaped the political life of Georgia and the nation, and nowhere are its effects more starkly visible than in Fulton County. In the nearly half-century since it passed in 1965, blacks and other minority candidates have surged into elected office at every level. In places such as Fulton County, many white residents voted with their feet, moving out to less racially diverse areas. And every proposed annexation or redrawing of district lines became an overt or covert struggle over racial power.

That tension is still very much alive today — with the battle over Fulton’s commission districts as one momentous example.

Critics say the preclearance requirement has outlived its usefulness. They say the blatant discrimination that justified it is now rare. As proof, they cite tremendous progress in minority voter registration and turnout across the South.

“Perhaps there was a time when it was necessary to have that (federal) intrusion,” said attorney Frank Strickland, who handles redistricting litigation. “I think its time has passed.”

Supporters say preclearance is needed because discrimination still exists. Some cite the new Republican proposal to redraw Fulton’s districts. Among other things, the plan would produce a new white-majority district and would pit two incumbent Democrats – both African Americans – against each other.

“This is just a scheme for white Republicans to take over the Fulton County Commission,” Said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “I think it’s race-based.”

Supporters of the redistricting plan dispute that characterization. They say it’s about giving North Fulton residents equal representation in county government.

“Race has no place in this discussion about representation,” said Michael Fitzgerald, co-founder of the North Fulton & Friends Tea Party. “The people of North Fulton County have been disenfranchised. It would seem to me that many of those calling ‘race’ could recognize that more than most.”

Congress approved the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in response to nearly a century of resistance to rights guaranteed by the Fifteen Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The law prohibits any practice or procedure that even unintentionally curtails voting rights based on race or color. Most of its provisions apply uniformly across the nation, but Section 5 singles out several states, mainly in the Deep South, requiring them to preclear voting changes with either the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington.

Georgia – with its history of literacy tests, whites-only primary elections and other tools used to discourage minority voting – is one of the states that must seek preapproval. According to federal records, the Justice Department has objected to election changes in Georgia 177 times.

The department has objected to a variety of changes in Fulton County.

In 1972, for example, the Justice Department rejected an Atlanta plan to change precinct boundaries and the location of polling places. A related federal lawsuit filed by black residents claimed city officials changed polling places in black neighborhoods to inconvenient or distant locations. The court ordered the city to establish new or additional locations more convenient to voters.

In 1983 the Justice Department rejected a College Park redistricting plan. At the time blacks accounted for about half the city’s population. But city officials created only one majority-black council district and five majority-white districts. It was the second time in less than a decade that the department had objected to a College Park redistricting plan.

“The white power structure in College Park was determined that they would maintain control,” said former City Councilman Jesse Dent.

Dent, who is black, led a neighborhood group that negotiated a new plan. He later won election to the council himself.

In 1974, the Justice Department objected to certain features of a new plan for the election of Fulton County commissioners. The matter wound up in court; under the system that emerged, African Americans gained their first seats on the commission.

The Justice Department has also intervened in plans governing the election of Palmetto City Council members (twice in 1977) and State Court judges in Fulton County (1995). And it initially declined to approve an annexation proposal in Union City (1992), though it later withdrew the objection. In each case the department found the changes could abridge minority voting rights.

The impact of the act has been dramatic.

In a 2006 study, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock found substantial improvements in minority voter registration and turnout in Georgia in the decades following the Voting Rights Act. As a result, he noted, hundreds of African Americans have been elected to public office in Georgia.

When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only one African American had been elected to represent the county in the General Assembly for almost six decades. Six more were elected almost as soon as the law took effect. Today, 13 of 36 members of the county’s legislative delegation are minorities.

Before the act, no member of the Atlanta City Council was black; today, 13 of 16 members are black, and the city has had an African American mayor since 1974. As recently as 1973, the County Commission consisted of three white members; today, five of seven members are black.

Underlying the political shifts were significant demographic shifts. Between the 1970 and 1980 censuses, the white population of Fulton County shrank by roughly 67,000 people. The African American population grew by roughly the same number, with the result that, for a time, a majority of Fulton residents were black.

That trend has changed in recent years, with the white population growing faster than the black population. In the latest census estimates, African Americans comprised 43 percent of the county’s residents and non-Hispanic whites were 42 percent. Most of the rest were Hispanic. When it comes to eligible voters (citizens at least 18 years old), whites slightly outnumber blacks.

Bullock said the Voting Rights Act changed not just the look of elected bodies but the lives of ordinary people. Before the act, white neighborhoods in many communities had paved roads, city water and other services that black neighborhoods lacked. Today, those services are distributed more equitably, he said.

But the very success of the Voting Rights Act has led critics to argue the preclearance provision is no longer needed. It was originally intended as a temporary measure to combat extraordinary resistance to minority voting rights.

The Supreme Court has upheld the provision several times. But in 2009 – three years after Congress renewed it for another 25 years – justices hinted that it may no longer be justified.

Now Shelby County, Ala., has mounted a direct challenge, asking the court to overturn the preclearance requirement, and Georgia and other states have filed briefs supporting the move.

Fulton Democrats see the Republican redistricting plan for the County Commission as Exhibit A for why preclearance is still warranted. Republicans see the current makeup of the commission as Exhibit A for how thoroughly the ills of the past have been abolished.

Currently, two of the commission’s seven members are elected at large, while five are elected by district. In three of those districts, black residents are a majority of the population. Not surprisingly, five of the seven commissioners – including both at-large commissioners – are black Democrats.

The County Commission approved a redistricting plan that tinkers with district boundaries while maintaining the commission structure – and likely the Democratic majority. The plan proposed by North Fulton Republicans in the General Assembly eliminates one of the at-large seats and creates a new district in largely white North Fulton. It also puts the homes of two incumbent black Democrats – Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards – in the same district.

“It’s racist,” said South Fulton resident Vangie Watkins. “They gerrymandered the districts.”

Several Republican co-sponsors of the plan did not respond to requests for comment last week. But Fitzgerald, the tea party leader, said critics of the GOP plan have it backward. It is predominantly white North Fulton that has been disenfranchised under the current system, he said.

“All those things that you’d expect by a lack of representation have come true,” Fitzgerald said. “North Fulton County has long been ignored.”

If, as expected, the Legislature approves the GOP plan, it will be submitted for preclearance. Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta, said the changes it makes could draw objections from the Justice Department. But that assumes the department will still have the authority to preapprove the plan.

Depending on when it gets submitted, it could be awaiting Justice Department approval when the Supreme Court rules. The court’s decision is expected by June.