Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks while fellow panelist Elizabeth Hinton listens in the background at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta in 2017. Holder is the chairman of a Democratic political group that filed a lawsuit attempting to throw out Georgia’s congressional districts. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lawsuit says Georgia congressional maps dilute black voting power

Georgia is one of three Southern states where a national Democratic group has filed federal lawsuits alleging congressional districts were drawn to limit the political power of black voters.

The lawsuit challenges maps approved by the Republican-led Georgia General Assembly in 2011, saying state lawmakers gerrymandered the state’s 14 congressional districts in a way that violates the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting discrimination against racial minorities.

The suit, filed Wednesday on behalf of four black Georgia voters, is backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is led by Eric Holder, who was attorney general under President Barack Obama.

The organization filed similar suits contesting voting districts in Alabama and Louisiana.

Georgia gained a congressional seat after the 2010 U.S. census, in large part because of population growth among minorities, who generally vote for Democrats, according to the lawsuit. Minorities accounted for 80 percent of Georgia’s population growth of 1.5 million people from 2000 to 2010.

But the new congressional district’s boundaries benefited Republicans, the suit says.

Today, Republicans control 10 of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats. Before redistricting, Republicans held eight of 13 seats.

“The fairness of representation decreased,” said Marina Jenkins, the litigation director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “There is a minority community in Georgia, as in other states we’re looking at, where that community is not being given an equal opportunity to effectuate their voting power.”

Republican Party leaders characterized the lawsuits as an attempted power grab by the Democratic Party.

“While Georgia Democrats have to rely on litigation to win elections, Georgia Republicans can focus on a winning message of tax cuts, jobs and a booming economy,” Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson said.

Poll workers Raphallia Edwards and Chris Nolan prepare signage at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta in May 22. A lawsuit has been filed challenging maps approved by the Republican-led Georgia General Assembly in 2011, saying state lawmakers gerrymandered the state’s 14 congressional districts in a way that violates the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting discrimination against racial minorities. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The lawsuit asks a federal court to prevent the state from conducting future elections using its current congressional district map, and to order new congressional districts that comply with the Voting Rights Act, a major civil rights law passed in 1965.

The suit says a section of the Voting Rights Act guarantees black voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to Congress.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether it’s constitutional to change district borders to benefit one political party over another. The litigation filed this week is different because it’s based on the Voting Rights Act rather than the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.

“African-Americans in Georgia — and all minorities — must have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of choice,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat representing parts of DeKalb, Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties. “It is high time we move past the dilution of African-American voting power in Georgia and ensure equal voting rights for all.”

Georgia legislators drew congressional districts so that black voters were dispersed to decrease their combined political strength, according to the lawsuit. For example, the black voting-age population in the 12th Congressional District, which stretches from Augusta to Douglas, decreased from 41.5 percent to 33.3 percent. Republican Rick Allen won that seat from Democrat U.S. Rep. John Barrow in 2014.

“This is very typical Republican behavior. They redistrict constantly to try to maximize their gains,” said Sara Ghazal of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

The Democratic Party supports the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw political boundaries, a position supported by 76 percent of voters who answered a ballot question on the topic on Democratic ballots in last month’s primary election.

Republican State Leadership Committee President Matt Walter said the U.S. Justice Department cleared the 2011 congressional maps as complying with the Voting Rights Act when Holder was attorney general. But that doesn’t prohibit subsequent lawsuits asserting violations under a different section of the act.

“They cynical lawsuits filed today by Holder and the Democrats are crass attempts to rally the left-wing base and to elect more Democrats through litigation, instead of running winning campaigns on policies and ideas that voters actually want,” Walter said.

The lawsuit challenging Alabama’s and Louisiana’s maps claims black voters are illegally packed into the two states’ only majority African-American districts and spread out among other districts.

A separate lawsuit pending in federal court is contesting two of Georgia’s legislative districts, in Gwinnett and Henry counties, that were redrawn in 2015 to help incumbent Republicans win re-election. In that case, a three-judge panel recently denied a preliminary injunction for the plaintiffs because they couldn’t refute testimony that partisanship — not race — was the primary motivation.

— The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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