This was originally published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This week, the Georgia legislature is reconvening under court order to address racial discrimination in state and federal redistricting. Now a new study finds that Georgians of color are also underrepresented in local government.
My coauthor and I found that Asian, Black, and Latino Georgians hold less than 30 percent of school board and county commission seats, although they make up about 50 percent of the state’s population. The state’s fastest-growing racial groups, Latino and Asian Georgians, are the most heavily underrepresented. These local positions wield a great deal of power over Georgians’ lives. What is blocking Georgians of color from fair representation at the local level?
One major obstacle is the state legislature, which has become increasingly involved in local redistricting. Traditionally, state lawmakers approve local maps that have the support of local legislative delegations made up of the state legislators whose districts contain the county in question. But recently, the legislators have broken this “local courtesy” custom for certain maps by shuffling those redistricting bills into committees that don’t require the approval of the local legislative delegations. They did so selectively, for maps affecting five counties, four of which had experienced significant growth of communities of color and had elected a majority of people of color to the commission: Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Richmond.
Take Cobb County. In 1990, the county was 88 percent white. Thirty years later, people of color became the majority for the first time — with significant Black, Latino, Asian and multiracial populations. Political change followed: in 2020, Cobb County voted Democratic in the presidential election by 12 percentage points more than in 2016. At the local level, voters gave Democrats a majority on the Cobb County Board of Commissioners for the first time in 36 years. Jerica Richardson, a Black woman and a Democrat running for the first time, won one of those seats.
But when it came to redistricting in 2022, the state legislature rejected the county commission’s redistricting plan in favor of one that blatantly undermined the voting power of emerging communities of color. Richardson would be in a different district, which had different start and end dates, making it impossible to immediately run for reelection. Moreover, the maps would interrupt Richardson’s term and cut her time in office short by two years. That effort has created a constitutional crisis with litigation making its way through state court.
In addition to abusing its approval power of local maps, the state legislature maintains another structural barrier to fair representation. It gatekeeps how each county elects commissioners – does it have a board of commissioners or just one “sole commissioner”? If it has a board, does it have multiple districts that each elect one commissioner or does it hold “at large” elections with the whole county voting on all seats? The answers make a difference. Both at-large and sole-commissioner counties have significantly worse representational disparities compared to those with single-member districts like Cobb County’s. Nearly one in four Georgia counties elects its commissioners at-large, and seven have sole commissioners. No person of color in Georgia has ever been elected as a sole commissioner.
Georgians of color have little recourse against the state legislature’s decisions about their local government – whether election systems or district maps. This hasn’t always been the case. Before 2013, they could rely on the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance function, which allowed the federal government to prevent racially discriminatory policies from going into effect. But then the Supreme Court gutted preclearance in Shelby County vs. Holder, which emboldened state legislatures like Georgia’s, which began exploiting their oversight role in local government. Georgians of color need to have strong legal protections in these processes once again, or else the gap between their share of the population and their share of local power will continue to grow.
That can be achieved through the federal John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in September, which would restore the preclearance regime that operated most often on the local level. Or Georgia can pass its own voting rights act, as several states have done, to offer redress in state court.
Georgians of color should have fair representation at every level of government. As the special session kicks off over the federal and state maps, Georgia should keep its local maps in mind as the next place for reform.