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World & Nation

District mapping is diluting minority votes in this Georgia county, civil rights groups allege in lawsuit

Kirsten Clarke
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee.
(Donald Kravitz / Getty Images)

More than half a century after the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, the most racially diverse county in the southeastern United States is depriving minority voters of the ability to elect local candidates of their choice, a coalition of civil rights groups has alleged in a federal lawsuit.

Although minorities make up more than half the residents of Gwinnett County, Ga., northeast of Atlanta, no black, Latino or Asian American candidate has ever won a seat on the Board of Commissioners or Board of Education or in any other county office, the lawsuit says.

The voting strength of minorities has been diluted by county district maps that have been drawn in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee, which represents the plaintiffs, including the Georgia National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Georgia Assn. of Latino Elected Officials.

“We found it remarkable and startling that in an area with such tremendous racial diversity, you had the outright exclusion of African Americans and Latinos from the political life of the county,” Clarke told reporters on a conference call Monday. “This is a long-standing and historical problem that we seek to uproot.”

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She said the problem is part of a wider pattern of racial tension in a county where black parents have raised concerns about how public schools discipline their children and Latinos have criticized county law enforcement for rounding up immigrants living in the country illegally.

Once sleepy, rural and predominantly white, Gwinnett County by the mid-1980s became the fastest-growing county in the nation and a poster child for suburban sprawl.

The population today is nearly 900,000, including the largest Latino community in the Southeast. Drawn by affordable housing, Latinos jumped from 3% of the county’s population in 1990 to 20% in 2010.

The political system has not kept up with the demographic changes, activists said.

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“Gwinnett County government does not care about Latinos and has done very little about reaching out to the Latino community,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the state’s association of Latino elected officials. He noted that this year officials refused to make Spanish-language ballots available to residents who have difficulty reading English.

“Until it’s an inclusive government, it’s a fraudulent government,” Gonzalez said.

Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said that with a “new majority of minorities” in Gwinnett County, those in power want to “hold on to power.” Minorities have been systematically divided over multiple voting districts to prevent them from having a unified voice in elections, he said.

“Whether it’s in metro Atlanta or rural Georgia, we serve notice to the state of Georgia and officials who run this state: We’re not going to watch the hard-earned gains of the Voting Rights Act be eviscerated while Congress does nothing,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, calls for court-ordered redistricting plans and new elections for the commission and the school board.

A spokesman for the commission declined to comment other than to say that its attorneys would review the lawsuit. The school board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that precinct boundaries for the election of commissioners have been purposely drawn so that minorities make up 39% to 45% of the voting-age citizens in each district, preventing them from forming a majority anywhere.

The school board election map includes one district in which 75% of voters are minorities, but the same board member has held the seat for more than 40 years and proved difficult to topple. The rest of the minority population is split across four remaining districts, all dominated by white voters.

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Since 2002, a total of 12 minority candidates — eight African Americans, three Latinos and an Asian — have run for the Board of Commissioners or the Board of Education, according to the lawsuit. All have lost to whites.

Jennah Es-Sudan, a tax accountant who is black and ran for the school board as a Democrat in 2012, said she had looked forward to a promising campaign — until her district was redrawn in 2011 to include more Republicans.

“I felt I had been kind of railroaded,” Es-Sudan said of her eventual loss to a Republican. “I’d had a Democratic district, and I had no doubt I could win in that district.”

“The board is lily white now,” she said. “It has always been and it always will be.”

After her loss, Es-Sudan was so frustrated she eventually moved to nearby Dekalb County. “I kind of felt that with my level of interest in politics and government, as long as I was in Gwinnett, it was never going to happen,” she said.

Brian Whiteside, a black attorney who ran unsuccessfully for county sheriff in 2004 and county clerk of court in 2012, said some of the blame rests with activists for not doing enough to register minority voters and get them out on election days to cast ballots.

“Instead of trying to blame the county and the commissioners, they need to spend the money on viable candidates,” he said. “Minorities in Gwinnett County out-populate all the whites. White people come out and vote. Minorities don’t come out and vote.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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