Rights groups push for redistricting maps reflecting growth of minorities

ByDave Williams Capitol Beat News Service | Brunswick News | August 30, 2021

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ATLANTA — The new congressional and legislative district maps the General Assembly will draw this fall should reflect the tremendous growth of minority groups in Georgia, representatives of civil rights and voting rights groups said Monday.

The state’s Black, Hispanic and Asian-American populations increased by double digits during the last decade, while Georgia’s white population declined by 1%, Christopher Bruce, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, told members of the state House and Senate committees overseeing redistricting.

The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits redrawing maps in a way that dilutes minority voting power, added Sean Young, the ACLU of Georgia’s legal director.

“When you’re looking at a map, are you making it harder for communities of color to elect a candidate of their choice?” Young said. “The Voting Rights Act trumps everything other than the U.S. Constitution.”

States must redraw their congressional and legislative district lines every 10 years to account for population shifts reflected in the U.S. Census.

The Census Bureau released local data from the 2020 Census earlier this month. The Republican-controlled General Assembly will use that data to redraw Georgia’s district boundaries during a special session this fall.

Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups representing Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters urged lawmakers Monday to engage in a transparent redistricting process that will lead to fair maps. That was essentially the message the two committees already heard during 11 public hearings held across the state in recent weeks.

To ensure transparency, the committees should allow additional hearings after proposed maps have been drawn, let the public submit alternative maps, and provide relevant materials in a language other than English, said Lavita Tuff, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, which represents by far Georgia’s fastest growing minority group.

“Georgians want a fair redistricting process that results in maps that respond to the needs of citizens … [and] that do not confer partisan advantage,” said Julie Bolen, redistricting chair for the League of Women Voters of Georgia. “Secrecy intensifies public mistrust of public elected officials at a time it’s already at a low.”

Sachin Varghese, general counsel for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that’s not what happened in 2011 when Republicans were in charge of redistricting. He said GOP lawmakers moved Black voters out of Georgia’s 12th Congressional District to make it easier to elect a white candidate and paired Black legislative incumbents with other incumbents, creating more uncompetitive districts elsewhere.

But Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Georgia’s 2011 redistricting maps were approved by then-President Barack Obama’s Justice Department and were never challenged in court.

The same was not the case in 2001, when Democrats held majorities in the legislature, Cowsert said.

“The last time the Democrats drew these districts in Georgia, they were extremely gerrymandered,” he said. “The Republican Party has handled redistricting one time in the last 100 years, and the maps were found to be fair, legal and constitutional.”

Varghese responded that he disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision on the 2011 maps, and they should have been challenged.

Janet Grant, vice chairman of the nonpartisan nonprofit Fair Districts Georgia, conceded the legislature faces a difficult job balancing the need to maximize minority voters’ opportunities to elect candidates of their choice with keeping cities, counties and other “communities of interest” together.

“We recognize you have a very big job in front of you with a lot of competing interests,” she told lawmakers. “[But] Georgia is one of the least competitive states in the country. There is a lot of room for improvement.”