Lawsuit: Georgia lawmakers violated black voters' rights in 2015 redistricting

The Georgia State Capitol is located in downtown Atlanta.
The Georgia State Capitol is located in downtown Atlanta.

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers violated federal voting rights law by moving black voters out and white voters in to two state House districts in 2015, according to a lawsuit filed Monday that calls the mid-decade redistricting an effort to protect white Republican incumbents.

The Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law filed the federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia on behalf of the state chapter of the NAACP and five residents of the affected districts. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the state's top elections official, also is named in the suit.

"Lawmakers firmly placed their thumb on the scale by redrawing district boundaries in ways that would preserve their incumbency and freeze the status quo in place," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee. "They seek to disregard the demographic changes occurring across Georgia by putting pen to paper mid-decade."

The suit filed in Atlanta asks that a three-judge panel review the redistricting changes and consider ordering lawmakers to re-draw the two targeted districts. Lawyers for the NAACP and residents also ask that no elections be held using the districts as they were drawn in 2015. State legislative elections are held every two years; the next contests would be in 2018.

Representatives for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and Kemp weren't immediately available to comment on the lawsuit.

Georgia's Constitution gives state lawmakers the authority to draw House and Senate districts "as necessary" after the U.S. Census is completed every 10 years, but courts have determined that changes between censuses also are permitted.

Changes to any of Georgia's political boundaries would have required federal pre-approval if the Supreme Court hadn't struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Georgia was among nine states still required to get federal pre-approval for new voting changes when justices ruled that federal oversight is no longer necessary.

The decisions allowed Republican majorities in Georgia's General Assembly to make the changes targeted by the suit through the usual legislative process. The changes in 2015 affected more than a dozen of the House of Representatives' 180 districts, but the lawsuit focuses on the 105th District represented by Republican Joyce Chandler in Gwinnett County and the 111th in Henry County represented by Republican Brian Strickland.

The lawsuit says the changes increased the percentage of white voters in Chandler's district to about 53 percent in 2016 elections, compared to 48 percent. Black voters went from 32 percent to 30 percent. The suit says the changes increased the percentage of white voters in Strickland's district to 58 percent in 2016 elections, compared to 56 percent. Black voters went from 33 percent to 31 percent.

Both Republicans were re-elected to their seats last year over black Democrats.

Eric Segall, a professor of law at Georgia State University who's not involved in the lawsuit, said any challenge under federal voting rights law will be reviewed based on whether the voting changes had an adverse effect on minority voters or were intentionally designed to hurt minority voters.

"This whole area of law is in great flux," Segall said, noting ongoing challenges in North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin that the U.S. Supreme Court could consider.

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