WASHINGTON ― Minorities made up more than half of the population of Gwinnett County, Georgia, in 2010. But thanks to discriminatory election rules, the county has never elected an African-American, Latino or Asian-American candidate to any county office, voters and civil rights groups alleged in a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed Monday.
The five-member Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, which is all white, divides minority voters so they aren’t a majority in any district, the plaintiffs claim. The County Board of Education, also all white, concentrates minority voters in one district, according to the lawsuit. Since 2002, white candidates have defeated 12 minority candidates who have run for these boards, the plaintiffs allege.
The plaintiffs, who include Gwinnett County voters, the state branch of the NAACP and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, would like to see the districts redrawn so minority voters have an equal shot at electing a candidate of their choice. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
“Gwinnett County government does not care about Latinos,” said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of GALEO, on a call with reporters on Monday. “There’s a disconnect between the leadership in Gwinnett County and the reality of the diversity,” he added.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is acting as pro-bono counsel, said that minority parents in Gwinnett County have mobilized for years on issues like dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, a problem that emerges in a school system that harshly disciplines students along the lines of race. She said the parents have encountered difficulty finding elected officials to respond to their concerns.
The County Board of Commissioners was still reviewing the lawsuit, said county spokesman Joe Sorenson. The Board of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs are seeking a ruling that says current district boundaries violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits jurisdictions from drawing lines that improperly dilute minorities’ voting power. The Voting Rights Act, an achievement of the civil rights movement, was designed to ensure the constitutional rights of minority voters.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated another key section of the law in 2013, making it so jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination no longer had to get federal approval before changing their electoral rules. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that getting rid of this pre-clearance requirement was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Unsurprisingly, freed states then went and incorporated new voting restrictions, like requiring photo ID and reducing early voting. This year, 15 states will have voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Another Georgia county came under scrutiny recently after it dispatched deputies to question the voting registration of black citizens by demanding that they appear in person or lose their voting rights, according to The New York Times. This is the kind of move that would have previously been subject to federal review.
The Gwinnett County lawsuit is part of ongoing post-Shelby election administration monitoring across Georgia, Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said in a statement.
“The NAACP will mortgage every asset we have to defend the unfettered access to the ballot,” he added. “It was paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors – it’s sacred.”