Skip to comments.Redistricting suit holds voting rights future (Georgia)
Posted on 04/27/2003 10:32:31 PM PDT by LdSentinal
More will be at stake than just the political tilt of the state when Georgia goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The state's lawyers will argue a redistricting case that has caused the Republican governor to sue the Democratic attorney general.
But on a national scale, the outcome of the case could send a message that might help determine whether Congress renews the 1965 Voting Rights Act four years from now.
"That date is looming out there, and it does raise an interesting question to the Supreme Court whether to send a signal to Congress," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst with the National Council of State Legislatures.
"It's certainly within the realm of possibility for the Supreme Court to . . . gut the Voting Rights Act, [although] it's hard to imagine they would go that far," Storey said. "But the Supreme Court has vast power. The interpretation [of the Voting Rights Act] has expanded considerably over time. Redistricting had a much different set of rules in the '90s."
The case, Georgia v. Ashcroft, is the only significant redistricting case that the justices have taken from the 2000 census. Each decade since the Voting Rights Act was adopted, the justices in Washington have been called on to explain in greater detail the law that requires Georgia and 15 other states with histories of discrimination to get federal approval before they can change any election laws.
While the voting strength of minorities -- in Georgia, African-Americans -- is the primary concern, the real issue is political power. Spreading black voters through a number of districts can help Democrats. Lumping them into a few districts, surrounded by areas dominated by white voters, helps Republicans.
"Politics and redistricting are inseparable," Storey said. "You cannot ignore the political undercurrents of redistricting, and you should always consider the political background of the players, whether it's litigants or parties coming to the table. Everybody has political interests at stake."
The justices will address two questions: How far can the state reduce the percentages of minority voters in any district? And may such outside interests as political parties have a say in states' efforts to get federal approval of changes to political lines?
The Georgia case is based on a state Senate map that Democrats drew during a special session in 2001.
To get approval of changes to voting laws, states either ask the Department of Justice for approval or go to the U.S. District Court in Washington.
For the 2001 redistricting, Georgia, for the first time, went straight to court for "pre-clearance" of its legislative and congressional maps -- with the Justice Department on the other side.
The three-judge panel approved the state's congressional and House maps. But it rejected the Senate plan because the General Assembly had reduced too much the minority voting strength in three districts -- Savannah, Macon and Albany.
Last year, with elections looming, the General Assembly drew another Senate map. It won approval -- and also won the state Senate for the Republicans, once four Democrats switched parties after the Nov. 5 election.
But if the state of Georgia and Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker were to win this appeal, the initial map that favored the Democrats would take effect.
"I just don't think there is any evidence the Republican Justice Department will look out for the interests of African-Americans," said Sen. Robert Brown, a black legislator whose district was one of the three at issue.
Even so, a coalition of civil rights leaders has filed a brief in the case that sides with the Justice Department.
"The state is making arguments that are very dangerous," said Laughlin McDonald, who is with the American Civil Liberty Union's national Voting Rights Project.
"If the [U.S. Supreme] Court buys them, it could change in a dramatic way the standards" used for crafting minority legislative and congressional districts," said McDonald, who wrote the brief for the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda.
Georgia argues that it complied with federal law, even if the percentage of minority voters in districts previously identified as as African-American districts dropped below 45 percent. "The [U.S.] Constitution and the Voting Rights Act do not guarantee victory to minority candidates, but only equal opportunity," the state wrote in its brief.
That number, the state argued, would give minorities a 50-50 chance of winning The three Senate districts were singled out, according to Justice, because of evidence that voting there was more polarized than in other minority districts so the African-American percentages needed to be higher.
Super majority factor
But Brown noted that he was first elected in 1991 in a majority-white district in a five-way race that included two white men.
One of 10 blacks in the 56-member state Senate, Brown cites several legislative or congressional districts that were majority white but elected African-Americans, including those for former state Sen. Charles Walker in Augusta and U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop and David Scott.
"I felt it was a political decision made by the Bush Justice Department," Brown said about objections to the way his district originally was drawn in 2001.
"They're not taking into consideration African-Americans can run smart campaigns and win elections and appeal to voters outside African-American communities," Brown said. "I'm not naive enough to think racism is dead. But I don't think you need an African-American super majority to get elected."
Politics the real issue
Packing minorities into one district only dilutes the voices of others in neighboring districts, Brown said. "It all comes down to politics." Georgia has pointed out in its brief that all but one African-American senators voted in favor of the plan.
The civil rights coalition, however, wrote that the benchmark Georgia was proposing would "have a devastating impact on minority office holding and voting rights."
Its argument: "A 50-50 chance of winning is also a 50-50 chance of losing."
The state's "point of equal opportunity" for blacks is 44.3 percent, which McDonald argued would have a "chilling effect" on black voters and a "warming effect" on whites. "I would hope at some point, race would not be a factor," he said. "But I don't think we've reached it yet."
Soon after Sonny Perdue took office as the state's first Republican governor in 135 years, he ordered Baker to drop the U.S. Supreme Court appeal. Perdue argued that further litigation would be too costly to the state and that voters wanted redistricting decisions made by the state and not by the courts.
Baker refused, because, he said, the issues would be important to other states and the ruling could guide future redistricting.
Perdue claimed that constitutionally he is the state's top legal officer and sued Baker. However, a Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled for Baker. The governor's appeal to the state Supreme Court will be heard a week after the U.S. Supreme Court arguments Tuesday.
"Both parties have wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of the Voting Rights Act in order to advance partisan goals," McDonald said.
"Republicans say the Voting Rights Act requires states to create districts where minorities have a better chance, when in fact what they want to do is drain off the Democratic black voters and make opportunities for Republicans in remaining districts," he said.
"The Democrats, on the other hand, want to take down the black percentages as much as they can so they can disperse black voters to maximize chances for white Democrats."