Voting rights decision could shake up Fulton politics

The Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act could scramble Fulton County politics, giving conservative white residents in the county’s northern end a greater say in local affairs.

But the fundamental tensions of a county divided along racial, geographic and partisan lines likely aren’t going away and might be inflamed by the court’s ruling.

Even as some north Fulton residents rejoiced over a ruling Tuesday that appears to allow new County Commission districts to take effect immediately, opponents are considering a lawsuit that could tie up Fulton’s political boundaries in costly and lengthy litigation. And while the Supreme Court’s ruling could make it harder to win that fight, opponents say they’re no less committed to the cause.

“The war ain’t over,” said Democratic Commissioner Bill Edwards, who opposes the new districts. “The war is definitely not over.”

This spring the Georgia General Assembly redrew County Commission boundaries to create a new north Fulton district and eliminate an at-large seat held by Democrat Robb Pitts. The new district lines also place Edwards and fellow Democratic incumbent Emma Darnell in the same district.

The result likely would increase the number of Republicans on the seven-member commission from two to three. And Republicans could win a majority if they capture the chairman’s post in next year’s elections.

Those districts were on hold pending approval by the U.S. Department of Justice. Other Georgia localities were also awaiting review by the Justice Department on voting-related issues. For nearly 50 years the Voting Rights Act has required federal preapproval of election changes in Georgia and other states with a history of discrimination.

But Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision effectively ended federal review indefinitely and perhaps permanently. A majority of justices ruled that the criteria used to determine which states were subject to federal review were outdated and unconstitutional.

Legal experts say the court’s decision means the Justice Department won’t review the Fulton commission districts, which will take effect immediately.

Diane DeVore, a member of the North Fulton and Friends Tea Party, welcomed the decision.

“I think it will give more representation (on the County Commission) to north Fulton County,” DeVore said. “Right now we don’t have enough representation.”

South Fulton resident Benny Crane said the court made a bad decision. He thinks the old criteria for federal review were still relevant “because not all of the states have a clear history of doing things right” when it comes to voting rights.

Opponents of the new districts still can file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn them. Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said the organization is considering filing such a lawsuit. Edwards said others also are considering it.

“We are not short of plaintiffs,” Edwards said.

In letters submitted this month to the Justice Department, the ACLU and Fulton County say the new districts violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting the strength of Fulton’s minority voters.

In its letter, the county cited a slew of bills that passed the Republican-led General Assembly this year that would prohibit the commission from raising property taxes and change county operations. The county called the redistricting plan “one part of that comprehensive scheme to dictate the affairs of Fulton County, rather than to allow those affairs to be controlled by the duly-elected and majority-black commission.”

The ACLU said the redistricting plan reduces the number of commission seats to which black voters could elect their preferred candidate. It says the plan also packs minority voters into certain districts and unnecessarily pits Edwards and Darnell — both African-Americans — against each other.

Those arguments likely would form the basis of a federal lawsuit.

Republican lawmakers say the new districts are intended to give residents in largely white north Fulton a full say in county government, not to discriminate against minorities. State Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said the districts stemmed from the recommendations of a bipartisan committee he headed in 2007.

Any litigation could take years and cost plenty. Fayette County has spent more than $300,000 defending itself from a voting rights lawsuit filed by the NAACP. Plaintiffs also can expect to pay more than $100,000 for expert analysis and other costs of litigation, and that doesn’t include attorney fees, the ACLU’s McDonald said.

While it’s possible a judge could issue an injunction stopping the new districts from taking effect until a lawsuit was resolved, McDonald said it’s more likely the new districts will take effect while any litigation continues.

That likely would mean next year’s elections will lead to a significant shake-up on the County Commission.

That would be just fine with residents who think the county spends too much and pays too little heed to their concerns.

“I think this is a good day for Fulton County,” Buckhead resident Bernie Tokarz said following the Supreme Court decision. “We can move forward with (commission district) maps that respect one man, one vote, that provide diversity to the Fulton County commissioners — geographic diversity.”

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