After failing to convince state lawmakers that a redistricting plan for the Fulton County Commission is flawed, county officials are taking their fight to the federal government.
The next stop is the U.S. Department of Justice, which the federal Voting Rights Act — at least for now — has charged with determining whether a redistricting plan protects minority voting rights.
Supporters say the plan is legal and will give north Fulton residents another much-needed voice by creating a new County Commission district there.
“I think it’s about geographic diversity (on the commission),” Buckhead resident Bernie Tokarz said. “It’s about one man, one vote.”
Democrats say the redistricting plan illegally diminishes minority voting strength in Georgia’s largest county. Though they lost that argument in the Republican-led General Assembly, they see a new chance to scuttle the plan at the Justice Department.
“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” Commissioner Bill Edwards said. “Well, she ain’t even on the stage yet.”
The upcoming Justice Department battle is the latest development in an often bitter debate over the structure of the commission. The districts are redrawn every 10 years to ensure each commissioner represents a roughly equal number of people — ensuring the principle of “one man, one vote.”
Currently, five Fulton commissioners are elected by district and two are elected countywide. The Republican plan would eliminate one countywide seat — held by Robb Pitts, an African-American Democrat — in favor of a new majority-white district in north Fulton.
Supporters say the fast-growing north has long been underrepresented on the commission. They say more districts will give citizens a greater voice in government.
“More districts mean smaller districts, which means (government) closer to the people,” Tokarz said. “It allows us to provide different geographic opinions on the Board of Commissioners.”
Critics say the Republican plan is a partisan power grab that will illegally dilute the votes of African-Americans, who make up about 45 percent of Fulton’s population.
“I’m not the Justice Department, but look at the evidence,” Edwards said.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department must approve election changes in Georgia and other states with a history of racial discrimination. The law prohibits changes that make it harder for minorities to select the candidates of their choice.
Several voting rights experts said there is reason to believe the Justice Department could take exception to the proposed Fulton plan.
“In Fulton County, clearly a large enough minority population is able to elect members at large who are minorities,” said attorney Emmet Bondurant, who specializes in redistricting. “When you then go to single-member districts and create one in a white enclave, guess what? That’s called regression (of minority voting strength).”
Republicans say they’re confident the proposed Fulton districts will be upheld.
“It does not cause a dilution of minority voting power,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
County officials expect to submit the plan to the Justice Department in coming weeks. But it’s possible the department won’t get to make a decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that could lead it to strike down the Voting Rights Act provision that allows the department to “preclear” election changes in states with a history of discrimination. The court is expected to rule by the end of June, and the Fulton case may still be pending when it does.
If the court strikes down the provision and the Justice Department review is scrapped, opponents could still challenge the legality of the Fulton redistricting proposal in court. But it would be a tougher fight. When the Justice Department reviews election changes, governments must prove the changes don’t harm minorities. In a lawsuit, the burden of proof would shift to those seeking to overturn the changes; they w0uld have to prove intentional discrimination.
Difficult or not, south Fulton resident Benny Crane thinks the redistricting plan should be challenged. He said the plan will further segregate the county into three safe Democratic districts in the south and three safe Republican district in the north. He said the lack of competitive districts is “not American.”
“Fights are not fought just because they can be won,” Crane said of the redistricting challenge. “Fights are fought because they are necessary to fight.”