By Khalil Abdullah
New America Media
ATLANTA (Aug. 15, 2011) — The passage of HB 87, state legislation clearly targeting immigrants, has given rise to an increasing awareness among Georgia’s ethnic minorities about what’s at stake for their political empowerment under the ongoing redistricting process.
Unless those ethnically diverse communities do more than pay lip service to strategic cooperation, they will succumb to the same tactics that were and are still used to deny the full enfranchisement and representation of African Americans.
These were among the observations of a panel of experts assembled by New America Media in the state capital to assist ethnic media to better understand the history, realities, and consequences of redistricting.
As panelist Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the ACLU in Atlanta since 1972, explained, though redistricting ideally should reflect one person, one vote, the process is driven by legislators seeking to retain their seats and “[political] parties trying to maintain their dominance.”
In a state whose Republican governor, Nathan Deal, recently championed and signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 (popularly known as HB 87) that was sponsored by a Republican-controlled legislature, there seems to be a clear bias toward limiting civic and political engagement by immigrant communities rather than expanding it.
In addition, Deal, while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives before his election as governor, sponsored legislation that would have barred children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States from being given American citizenship at birth, a right enshrined by the 14th Amendment of the U.S constitution. If Deal is able to preserve the Republican-dominated legislature through redistricting, he betters the odds of bringing his vision of Georgia’s future to fruition.
The ACLU’s McDonald reminded briefing attendees that the U.S. Supreme Court has never cited partisan gerrymandering as reason to invalidate a redistricting plan. Thus, panelist Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he has reason to be concerned that Georgia’s redistricting plan will prove as politically punitive to Latinos as HB 87 is to immigrants— because the same people who passed immigration law are now drawing the redistricting lines.
As a consequence, panelists were not optimistic that the Georgia legislature, scheduled to convene a special redistricting session on August 15, will yield a plan that fairly reflects Georgia’s changing demographics, or the state’s minorities’ interests.
Much of the increase in Georgia’s Latino population has been due to the state’s demand for farm laborers. Gonzalez noted that Latinos accounted for 28 percent of the state’s population growth in the last Census, though they account for less than 10 percent of Georgia’s 9.7 million people.
However, the immigration crackdown has led some immigrants to leave the state, despite a move by courts to put HB 87’s harshest provisions on hold and a vocal outcry among some business leaders. Spokespersons for the agricultural sector, still Goergia’s largest economic engine, are warning about imminent losses to the state due to the lack of labor, primarily Latino, available to harvest cash crops.
Yet, even as HB 87 prompts some Latinos to flee, Gonzalez noted there are communities in Georgia where the number of Latinos is large enough to directly elect representatives of their choice, such as Dalton, “America’s Carpet Capital of the World,” in the state’s northwest. Some 45 percent of Dalton residents speak a language other than English at home, and 90 percent of those speak Spanish, according to the Census.
Dalton is 44 percent Latino, though many residents are too young to vote. Immigrant non-citizens, of course, are also ineligible voters. Still, Gonzalez contended, there are likely enough voting-age Latinos in two of the city’s council districts to elect candidates of choice.
But Dalton council seat elections are determined by at-large voting — the entire city’s voting population gets to vote in each council district race. In a single member district system, only the voters in that district determine the outcome. As a result of the city’s at-large voting system, Gonzalez said there has “never been a Latino elected in the city of Dalton” because the votes from non-Hispanic whites from other districts weigh in and determine the outcome. “It’s about power,” Gonzalez said.
How at-large voting has been used in minority communities is well known to ACLU’s McDonald. African-American candidates would “get no white votes,” he said, of how the system is used to perpetuate those in power. He has successfully litigated many of the estimated hundreds of cases filed on behalf of African Americans under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to attain single-member districts and encouraged Gonzalez to blaze the same trail for Latinos.
Panelist Helen Butler, executive director of the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, said she also is familiar with how at-large voting regimes have been used in the South to frustrate minority-voting power. She cautioned that new techniques and methods are being introduced as well. For example, early voting in Georgia has been reduced from 45 days to 21 days, and increasingly stringent proof of citizenship requirements will also likely dampen voter registration rolls among African Americans, Asians and Latinos, all of whom, she said, have been among the state’s most marginalized voters.
Butler said that if African Americans, who constitute 30 percent of the state’s population, aligned with other minority voters, they would have significant influence in the state and could dictate the outcome of some races. Her observation is borne out by the 2010 Census, which has Georgia within eight percentage points of becoming a majority-minority state, as have California, New Mexico and Texas.
Not to be overlooked is the rapid growth of the Asian population in Georgia, especially in the Atlanta area, where almost 250,000 Asians now reside, according to panelist Eugene Rhee, the redistricting manager for the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, a social service organization. In Forsythe County, which encompasses part of Atlanta, Asians Americans now comprise 14 percent of the population, and in Duluth their number have increased by a 107 percent, now accounting for almost 22 percent population and ownership of over a thousand businesses of the 6,400 registered.
But, more importantly, Rhee said, the experience of the Korean community in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King riots charred their business community, taught them the importance of redistricting. Holding up a piece of paper with a single square sub-divided into five distinct areas, Rhee explained that before the riots, the one-square-mile Korean business community was represented by just one representative. During the ensuing redistricting cycle, that area was sliced and diced, resulting in its sections being reapportioned to five different elected officials, thus effectively gutting its collective power by making the Koreans numerical minority voters in the districts of other ethnic groups. “We don’t want to see that happen in Georgia as well,” Rhee said.
William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a bi-partisan organization long active in government accountability issues, said many Georgia jurisdictions already have experienced what happened to the Korean community in Los Angeles. Lines have been drawn for political parties to maintain power with even the state’s smallest county divided among four representatives, he said.
Perry explained that the result is often non-competitive or lopsided elections, where the process becomes “not about who is voting but who can get elected.” His organization is proposing Georgia adopt an independent commission to handle redistricting, one similar to commissions established in California, Montana, and Iowa.
Until then, McDonald said that the state’s redistricting plan could be challenged in court as Georgia is still under pre-clearance, meaning its plan must be approved by the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Yet, all the panelists at the July 19 briefing agreed there are key elements that will determine Georgia’s long-term political future for ethnic communities: increasing civic engagement and increasing voter registration rolls — tasks well suited to the strengths of ethnic media. Ultimately, said Butler, the goal is to put in place a redistricting process where “we get to choose who represents us.”