Eric Holder and Democrats begin redistricting wars in Georgia

Rep. Roger Lane of Darien, Ga., introduces the proposed map of the Georgia House Districts to the Georgia House of Representatives at the State Capitol in 2011.
Rep. Roger Lane of Darien, Ga., introduces the proposed map of the Georgia House Districts to the Georgia House of Representatives at the State Capitol in 2011. AP

As a conservative state legislator in Georgia, Rep. Brian Strickland of McDonough is no tea partier. But he isn't exactly a moderate either.

During his five years representing District 111 in Henry County, Strickland voted for an anti-LGBT "religious freedom" measure, a bill allowing people to carry weapons on college campuses and federal funding for unregulated "crisis pregnancy centers" that oppose abortions.

That conservative voting record wouldn't raise an eyebrow in many of Georgia's blood-red legislative districts.

But Strickland's agenda grew increasingly out of step with his rapidly changing constituency as more blacks, Hispanics and other minorities moved into his district as well as Henry County, a fast-growing, majority-minority exurb of Atlanta.

As his district grew more diverse, sure enough, Strickland’s margin of victory shrank in the 2012 election and even more in 2014.

With Republican hopes for a legislative supermajority in jeopardy, Georgia’s GOP lawmakers passed HB 566 in 2015, which removed 946 black voters from Strickland’s district and implanted 590 new white voters. In his closest election yet, Strickland defeated Democratic challenger Darryl Payton by 946 votes in 2016.

Payton and 10 other African Americans are now plaintiffs in the first federal lawsuit by former Attorney General Eric Holder’s new group, the National Redistricting Foundation, which will challenge Republican reapportionment efforts it sees as overly partisan or racially motivated in the run-up to the 2018 elections.

The suit claims Strickland’s re-drawn district and another, Georgia House District 105, were illegal racial gerrymanders designed to dilute African American voting power and empower white incumbents in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The foundation, which is backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, will also challenge challenge questionable legislative and congressional maps drawn after the 2020 census.

Both groups hope to help Democrats exert more influence on the redistricting process after Republicans used sophisticated mapping technology to draw favorable electoral maps nationwide after the 2010 census. That effort, dubbed Operation REDMAP, helped Republicans capture more seats in Congress and in state-level races in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The GOP now controls both state legislative chambers in 31 states, compared to 12 for Democrats.

The Democrats’ effort to constrain GOP redistricting won’t go unchallenged, however. The National Republican Redistricting Trust was recently formed to counter Holder’s efforts and fight similar battles in traditionally blue states where electoral maps have favored Democrats.

“We will not just be in a defensive posture on legal battles,” said Guy Harrison, senior adviser to the new trust. “That’s where we’ve been for the last two decades, allowing the Democrats to be filing lawsuits everywhere. I would anticipate that you’re going to see us be much more active in many of the blue states’ election cycles.”

Unlike the centralized Democratic redistricting effort, the NRRT will work with a number of Republican groups and committees, including the Republican Governors Association, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, Harrison said. The trust will try to raise $35 million.

Another group, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a federal suit similar to the Democrats’ effort in April alleging racial gerrymandering under Georgia’s HB 566. Their suit and the foundation’s suit could eventually be combined.

Holder’s foundation chose Georgia for its initial legal battle because the GOP-led state assembly tried again in 2017 to remove even more black voters from Strickland's district and replace them with white voters, said Kelly Ward, executive director of the redistricting committee.

The proposal, HB515, which died in the Georgia Senate, would have also moved white voters in and black voters out of Georgia House District 40 where another Republican incumbent was nearly defeated by a Democrat in 2014 and 2016.

Voting in both Georgia districts is highly polarized along racial lines with whites voting largely for Republicans and blacks mainly supporting Democrats.

"Georgia has been on our radar all year," Ward said. "That blatant attempt at racial gerrymandering in 2017 was just so egregious and really shined the spotlight on how much the Georgia legislature should be held accountable for their behavior. And that's why we're suing them."

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, now a Republican candidate for governor, is the defendant in the foundation’s suit.

Although he denies disenfranchising black voters, Kemp has been sued numerous times for purging voters of color from the rolls and has faced rampant criticism for undermining minority voter registration efforts.

"I took on the Obama Justice Department twice — and won — to implement our common sense voter ID and citizenship check laws,” Kemp said in a statement. “I'm ready to fight for hardworking Georgians again as Eric Holder and his team of liberal lawyers attempt to turn Georgia 'blue' through the court system."

Earlier this year, Holder called HB515 a “last-minute power grab” and “political map-rigging at its worst” even though the proposal would have added more black voters to the Atlanta district of Rep. Sheila Jones, a Democrat.

But “packing” more black voters into a few Democratic districts would only make it easier for Republican candidates to win neighboring seats, critics say.

Ward said she expects HB515 or a similar proposal to resurface in the next legislative session and, if successful, it could make the electoral map even more favorable for Georgia Republicans heading into redistricting after the 2020 census.

Georgia’s General Assembly can redraw electoral maps “as necessary” according to the state constitution, but it’s usually done after the census.

Holder’s lawsuit claims Republicans’ mid-cycle redistricting efforts would likely have been thwarted under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act that required the U.S. Department of Justice to provide “pre-clearance” to voting rules changes in Georgia and eight other states with long histories of voting discrimination.

Since 1965, the Justice Department has issued more than 170 pre-clearance objection letters to Georgia under the Voting Rights Act, the Georgia suit noted.

But the U.S. Supreme Court voided the pre-clearance requirement in June 2013, ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that an invalid formula had been used to determine which jurisdictions should be subject to the provision.

Civil rights groups say the court’s decision opened the door for Republican-led state and local governments to enact a flurry of controversial voting restrictions that disproportionately affect young, low-income, minority and student voters.

Harrison said Democrats’ laser focus on reapportionment — including a Supreme Court challenge of GOP electoral maps in Wisconsin — is seeking a legal fix for a ballot box problem.

“The Democrats are trying to win in the courts what they couldn’t win in the political process,” Harrison said.