Georgia’s decision to redraw state House of Representatives districts last year is getting new scrutiny as the battle over voting rights heats up in federal courts across the country.
The Georgia General Assembly approved new boundaries for 17 of the 180 House districts, including several in metro Atlanta. But one in particular has drawn interest: Critics say lawmakers took a highly competitive Gwinnett County district and made it easier for incumbent Republican Rep. Joyce Chandler of Grayson to get re-elected.
While partisan gerrymandering is almost as old as the United States, removing hundreds of minorities from District 105 and placing them in adjacent District 104 is a violation of the Voting Rights Act, they argue. They say the move intentionally spreads out minorities so they can’t join together to elect a candidate they think represents their interests.
Prominent Atlanta voting rights attorney Emmett Bondurant agreed it’s worth taking a look to see if a violation has occurred. “I would need to see the demographics of the district before and after (redistricting),” he said. “But if the precincts moved were overwhelmingly minority precincts, the likelihood of a (voting rights) violation is very high.”
Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, said the redistricting bill did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Nix, sponsor of the legislation, noted House Bill 566 was requested by incumbents representatives on both sides of the aisle and unanimously passed the House. Democrats tried and failed to scuttle it the Senate.
Chandler said the bill benefited incumbent Democrats as well as Republicans. She said the demographics of her district are changing and can’t necessarily be considered Republican, even after the redistricting.
“It could be Democratic now, for all I know,” she said.
Voting rights litigation has gained new urgency among minority advocates since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court stripped the Justice Department of its authority to preapprove political districts in Georgia and other states with a history of discrimination.
Discrimination against minority voters is still illegal, but voting rights advocates must prove a violation of the Voting Rights Act in court. In recent decisions, courts have struck down voter identification and other laws in several states. Civil rights groups in Georgia also have turned to litigation.
In August, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit arguing Gwinnett County Commission and school board districts are drawn to thwart minority voters. Though a majority of county residents are black, Hispanic or Asian, no minority has ever been elected to either board.
Last week, a federal lawsuit challenged Georgia's method of verifying voter registration information, saying it had disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.
Now voting rights advocates are renewing their criticism of last year’s legislative redistricting, especially in Chandler’s district.
“This was political gerrymandering,” said Stephen Day, vice chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party. “They took a precinct that was primarily African American and put it in neighboring District 104, a primarily white district.”
The General Assembly redraws House and Senate districts at least once every 10 years to ensure they are roughly equal in population. It drew new districts in 2011, following the 2010 census. But in 2015, it redrew the boundaries of 17 House districts again.
Nix, chairman of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee, said lawmakers requested the changes.
“We had done no redistricting since 2011 and numerous members had asked for minor changes,” Nix said. “We announced to all members of the House that we would consider changes during the 2015 session. The requirement was that it not make significant statistical changes and that all members involved in the changes had to agree.”
Chandler said she doesn’t recall requesting a change to her district. “I was not privy to the reason behind that,” she said.
The bill passed the House 168-0. That’s because the redrawing benefited Republicans in some districts and Democrats in others, said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. But after Fort raised questions about possible voting rights violations, the Senate passed the measure 39-14. Gov. Nathan Deal signed it, with the new districts taking effect for elections this year.
“We know why the Legislature draws plans. It’s to benefit incumbents,” said Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project.
Chandler represents one of the most competitive House districts. Four years ago, she won election to District 105 with just 51 percent of the vote. Two years later, she won with almost 53 percent – but it was one of the closest margins of any state legislative race that year.
HB 566 appears to have made Chandler’s district less competitive. According to an analysis by the legislature’s reapportionment office, in 2012 Barack Obama won her district over Republican Mitt Romney by a margin of 50.8 percent to 48.8 percent. Under the new district boundaries, Romney would have won 52.8 percent to 46.3 percent, the analysis showed.
According to the analysis, the share of black registered voters in the district fell from 34.9 percent to 31.6 percent. The share of Hispanic voters fell from 4.2 percent to 3.7 percent.
The Voting Rights Act prohibits moving minorities from one district to another to dilute their voting strength. Bondurant, who has handled redistricting litigation since 1962, believes that may have occurred in District 105.
Donna McLeod, Chandler’s Democratic opponent this year, called the new boundaries “egregious.”
“This has been a common practice, to dilute the (minority) vote,” McLeod said. “It was not necessary. I think it was just a way of minimizing people’s voices.”
Chandler said that is not her intent.
“I want the support of those people, too,” she said. “If I’m elected, I am everybody’s representative, not one side or one person’s representative.”