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Gwinnett on front line of voting rights fight

Lawsuit challenges provision called vital by minority leaders.

By Dan Klepal and Craig Schneider



When Arlene Beckles ran for Norcross City Council last year, she knew she was in for a tough battle. Not only was the first-time candidate running against an incumbent, she was an African-American trying to win office in a city that has elected only one black council member in its 142-year history.

Beyond that, she was up against the election process. Norcross elects its five city council members and mayor through at-large elections, meaning that each candidate vies for votes throughout the city, rather than in separate geographic districts. It's a system long recognized as tending to thwart minority candidates.

Actually, among Gwinnett County's elected bodies, the Norcross council is more diverse than most. Despite a dramatic surge in the number of black, Hispanic and Asian residents, the county commission and most city councils have no minority members.

That's precisely the kind of imbalance the federal VotingRights Act was designed to address. But, unlike neighboring Fulton County --- where political life shifted overnight in response to the 1965 law --- Gwinnett has gone largely unaffected.

The reasons, which are complex, say much about the reach of the landmark civil rights law in an era when Hispanics, Asians and other immigrants rather than African-Americans are the primary groups knocking at the door. In Fulton, the political dynamic is very much drawn in black and white. That's VotingRights 1.0. Gwinnett has a much more varied and less familiar palette. Call it VotingRights 2.0.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in a case that would abolish the law's most frequently used enforcement tool. The challenge, brought by Shelby County, Ala., aims at Section 5, which requires every governmental body within certain states --- including Georgia and its Deep South neighbors --- to get federal approval before implementing changes to its election system.

The so-called "preclearance provision" is vital, minority leaders say, because it places the primary onus on government bodies to show that they are not diluting minorities' voting power. Without it, a group that felt it had been wronged would carry a greater burden to amass evidence, hire lawyers and file a complaint or a lawsuit.

For Gwinnett's burgeoning Latino and Asian communities, the loss of Section 5 could come just when they need it most, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"Discrimination viewed through the black-and-white lens may have been diminished somewhat, but anti-Latino and Asian sentiment is very, very strong in Georgia, " Gonzalez said. That makes Section 5's preclearance mandate "still relevant to ensure Latinos and Asians can vote."

Several Gwinnett officials, however, took issue with that view. Like the plaintiffs in the Alabama case, they said preclearance is no longer needed. They said it unfairly forces certain states to atone for sins committed many years ago.

As for Gwinnett, they said, the U.S. Justice Department has never rejected any proposed change in voting, whether the redrawing of county commission districts or the annexation of land by a city.

"We comply with it, " Charlotte Nash, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Commission, said of the act. Preclearance is "an inconvenience, " she said, and "feels punitive past the point that it's necessary."

However, it's not clear to what degree votingrights issues in Gwinnett --- such as the cities' use of at-large elections --- have fallen under Justice Department's scrutiny.

The department's Civil Rights Division only reviews a voting system when changes are proposed. As far as officials in Lawrenceville, Norcross, Duluth and Lilburn can remember, their at-large systems have been in place for many years, perhaps before Gwinnett's diversity surged and minority votingrights became an issue.

In Norcross, Mayor Bucky Johnson said there's no need for the department to insert itself, because at-large elections work just fine.

"We've always had, as long as I remember, African-American representation, " Johnson said. "The current system seems to work well for Norcross." (Craig Newton, the council's black member, was first elected in 1995 and has served for most of the intervening years.)

But Beckles, who lost her bid last year, believes she'd have a better chance in a district that encompassed just one-fourth of the city's population. The area where she lives in east Norcross has a high concentration of minorities.

"I'm familiar with my side of town, " said Beckles, 49 --- adding, however, that she does volunteer work throughout the city.

At-large elections hamper candidates trying to build off a small base, since their supporters can be overwhelmed by the citywide vote, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.

"They can't get a foothold, " he said, and their failure to win local office ripples upward through the ranks of state and federal offices. "There is a political ladder. If you get on the first rung, you can move up."

It's too simplistic, though, to say that the system alone is responsible for Gwinnett's white-dominated electoral bodies.

Among immigrant populations such as Hispanics and Asians, many adults may not be eligible to vote because they are not citizens. Even those who are eligible may not feel invested in the political process.

In Gwinnett, minorities make up more than half the population, but they are a far smaller percentage of those eligible to vote and an even smaller slice of those registered to vote. Latinos, for example, represent 20.5 percent of the overall population, but only 7 percent of those eligible to vote, and only 4.5 percent of those who've registered.

Even so, Gwinnett may already have sufficient clusters of eligible minority voters to create districts in which they could hold sway. Likely areas exist in Norcross, Lilburn, Duluth and Lawrenceville, according to an analysis of census data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There's also a wide swath of minority voters across the middle of the county, enough perhaps to create a county commission district friendly to minority candidates. Commissioners are elected from four districts, with a chairperson elected at-large. Current district lines divide the minority population among several districts. All the commissioners are white.

"There's certainly a substantial block of minorities in the center of the county, " said Bob Kengle, co-director of the VotingRights Project for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "That's quite possibly a minority district."

Nash, head of the county commission, said such a district will eventually emerge. "Based on the likely trend in Gwinnett's demographics, I fully expect that there will be one or more majority-minority districts created by the Legislature during reappointment in 2022, " she said. (That is, after the 2020 census.)

Until then, she said, "I see no productive reason for second-guessing the decision made in 2012 by the Legislature regarding Gwinnett commission districts."

County officials did draw a majority-minority school board district after the 2010 census; the longtime incumbent, white Republican Louise Radloff, switched parties and won re-election with 70 percent of the vote.

As the Supreme Court hears arguments this week in the Alabama case, the question is whether the Justice Department will have the same power in 2022 to block or ratify the county's and the Legislature's actions.

If not, Gonzalez, of the Latino association, doubts that they will embrace change voluntarily. He said minority groups will probably have to file a federal lawsuit under another section of the VotingRights Act to achieve greater parity.

Across Georgia, civil rights organizations have already initiated scores of challenges to at-large voting systems, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU VotingRights Project. Fayette County is the target of one current lawsuit. To succeed, McDonald said, plaintiffs in such suits must show that the minority population is geographically concentrated and that minority voters share common political values. Plaintiffs also have to present evidence that white voters in the city or county don't support minority candidates --- something that will become clear in Gwinnett only as more minorities seek office.

But just finding people to run for office is a serious hurdle, said Ellen Gerstein, executive director of Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services. Her group sponsors training for people who want to take a leadership role in their community.

Many of Gwinnett's minorities come from countries where only the elites run for office; others fear interacting with government, she said.

Building political coalitions among minorities has also proved challenging, she said. While Latinos share a language, they may hail from countries with very different cultures. And Asians include people as diverse as Indians, Vietnamese and Koreans, who speak different languages.

The Supreme Court may find Section 5 too heavy-handed. But Glenn D. Magpantay, director of the Asian American legal defense fund's democracy program, said the law has done good --- if only by fostering conversations between white officials and their minority constituents.

"When they have an annexation or poll site change, the government solicits the support of the minority communities, " he said. "The mere fact that Gwinnett County has to meet that burden, has to seek the input of affected minority communities, has the effect of detouring those changes that could have a negative effect."

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