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Democracy in Danger: In Georgia’s Gwinnett County, threats to voting rights play out locally  

While Georgia was making headlines for its increasingly competitive governor’s race and the redrawing of its congressional and state legislative districts, Georgia politicians met in secret to craft the latest major threat to democracy: local government redistricting and restructuring.

State Sen. Clint Dixon previewed the Gwinnett County version during November’s special legislative session, with two surprise bills that would force Gwinnett County to restructure its school board and board of commissioners.

This legislation would require Gwinnett County to adopt new legislative maps that would dilute the voices of voters of color and form districts more advantageous to white conservatives. The bills would also make significant changes to governance structure and how members are elected, including doubling the number of seats in the Gwinnett County Commission by splitting up existing districts.

Once a county with a predominantly white population, Gwinnett County has grown increasingly diverse. According to the 2020 census, 30% of its residents are Black, 13% are Asian American Pacific Islander and 22% are of Hispanic or Latinx origin.

And its local government reflects that diversity, with people of color comprising the majority of its school board and holding every position on its board of commissioners. It is obvious that the Gwinnett County legislation takes direct aim at the power of voters of color who ushered in more diverse representation in 2020.

In Gwinnett’s case, civil rights groups were successful in stopping the bill during last month’s special legislative session. Advocates flooded the hearing room and unanimously testified against the bills. They each illuminated the harms that would result if this legislation were to pass.

“The districts that have been presented are not representative of the diversity and community in Gwinnett County,” Vyanti Joseph, organizing director at Asian American Advocacy Fund, said during her testimony.

Michelle Kang, a member of the Asian American community in Gwinnett County, decried the lack of notice and opportunity for meaningful public input.

“We have to have an opportunity to have our voices heard,” Kang testified. “In order for Asian Americans to get information about the maps, the vote should be postponed.”

Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett County NAACP, raised concerns about the impact of the legislation on the Black community in Gwinnett as well as on other people of color. She also said the legislation would determine “who controls $2.5 [billion] and $2.3 billion budgets, respectively, for our county commission and education structure.”

State Rep. Emanuel Jones, who opposed the legislation, said the proposed county commission map would create five districts where white voters comprised the plurality of the population as compared to the current districts that have elected four Black commissioners to the five-member board.

State Sen. Michelle Au, who also opposed the legislation, raised budgetary concerns.

“The estimation I got from adding four county commissioners is on the order of $2 million [per year],” she said during the hearing.

Unfortunately, the Legislature is again poised to gerrymander school boards and potentially dozens more districts. While fighting these bills will require exponentially more vigilance, organization and immediacy than during special session, advocates are more prepared given the special-session preview of what’s to come. But the public should be, too.

There may first appear to be no harm in the Gwinnett County bills or the new study committee on nonpartisan elections. But the study committee and forthcoming legislation aim to do more than that. If the special session bills are any indication, the new bills will seek to manipulate district lines, diluting the votes of people of color, and move existing partisan school board elections – like those in diverse counties such as Cobb and Gwinnett – to the nonpartisan, municipal off-cycle election calendar, where turnout is much lower and skews older, whiter and more conservative.

We can’t let Georgia’s legislative leaders force counties to restructure for partisan benefit and at our children’s expense. The aggressiveness with which the Gwinnett County School Board moved through special session exposed the racial and partisan motives for the legislation. It’s time to raise the alarm on local restructuring legislation and be prepared to stop it.

In introducing this bill, Georgia’s legislative leaders confirm a strategy that is set to become a hallmark of Georgia politics for years to come: Inject a lie, generate hysteria and create policies to entrench politics based on that lie.

We saw the same tactics at play early last year in the aftermath of the 2020 general and 2021 runoff elections, when Georgia enacted its 98-page omnibus anti-voter law. Prominent state and national leaders successfully peddled the voter fraud myth, deceiving their constituents and diminishing their confidence in elections.

The law now allows Georgia’s statewide incumbents to squeeze people of color of their right to freely and fairly cast a ballot. It also allows incumbents to usurp control from counties seeking to make voting more accessible.

Our democracy is in critical danger when its leaders can weaponize the spread of disinformation to wrest control over elections, manipulate district lines and trample on the right to vote. It’s not difficult to imagine how these tactics can be used to erode other fundamental rights if they’re already knocking at the gates of democracy.

While litigators have gone blue in the face holding our collective breath for federal legislation that will help us protect these rights, we have the opportunity to stop these bills before they pass.

Again, Gwinnett shows us the way.

Poy Winichakul is a staff attorney in the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group.

Top photo: Gwinnett County voters wait in line to cast their early ballots for the general election at the Lucky Shoals Park Community Recreation Center in Norcross, Georgia, on the last day of early voting on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Credit: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP Images)