Lawsuit: Gwinnett political districts thwart minority voting rights

Voting rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit against Gwinnett County Monday, seeking to overturn county commission and school board districts they say have been drawn to thwart minority voters.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, says minorities in Georgia’s second-largest county have been prevented from electing candidates of their choice, depriving them of a full say on issues ranging from immigration enforcement to school discipline.

Though blacks, Latinos and Asians account for more than half of Gwinnett’s population, no minority has ever been elected to the county commission or the school board, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit against the county and the school board seeks new districts favorable to minorities, as well as the possible elimination of the at-large county commission chairman’s job. An attorney for the plaintiffs said they had not ruled out seeking the changes in advance of this November’s county commission and school board elections, though in the past judges have been reluctant to order such changes so close to an election.

A Gwinnett County spokesman said its attorneys will review the lawsuit, which has not yet been served on the county. A school district spokeswoman declined to comment.

The lawsuit is the latest skirmish over minority voting rights in Gwinnett.

Last year, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) asked Gwinnett and Hall counties to provide Spanish-language ballots and voting materials. The group cited a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that GALEO says requires such assistance for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens but may not use English as their primary language. Both counties rejected the requests. Now GALEO is one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit.

In April a Gwinnett poll worker lost her job after a GALEO volunteer accused her of saying she didn't want non-English speaking people at her precinct during the March presidential primary.

The lawsuit also hinges on the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits practices that deny or abridge the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color, including practices that makes it harder for minorities than other groups to elect representatives of their choice.

The law has been used to successfully challenge political districts and voting systems in Georgia and across the country. Earlier this year Fayette County officials settled a lawsuit by agreeing to a plan that eliminated countywide (or "at large") voting for most county commission seats. Under the court-ordered districts that preceded the final settlement, Fayette elected its first black county commissioner. She later died, but was replaced with the election of a second black commissioner.

The Gwinnett lawsuit says county commission and school board districts illegally deny minorities the ability to elect representatives of their choice, as well as a full voice in public affairs.

Though blacks, Latinos and Asians accounted for 53.5 percent of Gwinnett’s 2010 population, minorities do not constitute a majority in any of the four geographic county commission districts. The lawsuit says one minority-majority district could easily be drawn if the chairman’s post remained at-large, and two could be drawn if the chairman’s post was converted to a district commission seat.

Minorities are a majority of the population in only one of the five school board districts. The lawsuit says two of the five districts could be majority-minority.

Since 2002, a dozen minority candidates have run for county commission or school board seats. None was elected. As a result, plaintiffs in the lawsuit say Gwinnett County is unresponsive to the concerns of minority residents.

“Until it’s an inclusive government, it’s a fraudulent government,” Penny Poole, a Gwinnett resident and one of seven people bringing the lawsuit, said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of the individual plaintiffs, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and GALEO. Named as defendants are the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners, the school district, the Board of Education and the Board of Registrations and Elections.

The lawsuit comes as demographic changes threaten Republican political dominance in Georgia and Gwinnett County. Studies have shown minorities tend to vote Democratic.

Latino voter registration surged nearly 20 percent in recent months, and a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows Georgia may be competitive in this year's presidential race. In Gwinnett, Democrats are counting on minority voters to boost their chances of winning a county commission seat for the first time since the 1980s.

About the Author