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Sneak Attacks on Political Representation for the New Multiracial America

A suburban Atlanta county illustrates how state lawmakers are trying to take away power that communities of color gained following demographic changes.

January 5, 2022

Thirty years ago, Geor­gi­a’s Gwin­nett County was at the heart of Repub­lic­ans’ emer­ging south­ern powerbase, with politi­cians like Newt Gingrich riding a wave of white flight to the suburbs of cities like Atlanta to lay the ground­work for the modern GOP. In recent years, however, the Gwin­nett County of Newt Gingrich has changed almost beyond recog­ni­tion.

A county that was 90 percent white in 1990 when it was repres­en­ted by Gingrich in Congress has become barely 35 percent white today. And with that change has come a polit­ical revolu­tion, as new multiracial polit­ical coali­tions have found foot­ing and shaken up the polit­ical status quo up and down the ballot. Now, Repub­lic­ans in the state legis­lature are push­ing back with struc­tural changes that seem designed to turn back the clock.

Since 2016, voters have elec­ted candid­ates of color to county offices in quick succes­sion for the first time. Gwin­nett County voters elec­ted Geor­gi­a’s first female Asian state senator as well as 20 Black women to state, county, and muni­cipal offices. But these successes also have made Gwin­nett into a focal point in the nation­wide assault on the right to vote.

The attacks are coming at all levels. Earlier this year, the Geor­gia legis­lature enacted an aggress­ive vote suppres­sion law that will dispro­por­tion­ately harm Black, Latino, and Asian voters. In Decem­ber, Repub­lican lawmakers rammed through gerry­mandered maps that dismantle diverse, multiracial districts where candid­ates of color have enjoyed increas­ing success in recent years.

Up next, the legis­lature looks ready to go local, target­ing the successes of communit­ies of color in secur­ing repres­ent­a­tion and policy victor­ies in Gwin­nett County, with GOP legis­lat­ors putting forward propos­als that would radic­ally change the struc­ture of the board of commis­sion­ers — its county level poli­cy­mak­ing body — and alter how its school board elec­tions would work.

As with many discrim­in­at­ory policies, these seem­ingly neut­ral changes take clear aim at the increased diversity among Gwin­nett County’s elec­ted offi­cials. Despite Gwin­nett’s major­ity-minor­ity status, no nonwhite person had ever been elec­ted to the commis­sion or school board prior to 2016. But by 2020, voters trans­formed the board of commis­sion­ers from all white to all people of color and elec­ted Nicole Hendrick­son as the first Black woman to chair the board, among other firsts.

Recent elec­tions have also resul­ted in a similar evol­u­tion on the Gwin­nett County Board of Educa­tion. In 2018, the first Black person (and the first openly gay member) was elec­ted to the school board. In 2020, voters ousted two Repub­lican incum­bents and elec­ted two Black women, creat­ing a 3–2 Demo­cratic major­ity on the board.

One bill, S.B. 5EX, would redraw district bound­ar­ies for the Gwin­nett County Board of Educa­tion and make school board elec­tions nonpar­tisan, elim­in­at­ing a marker used by voters to gauge polit­ical posi­tions. The proposed bound­ar­ies have been sharply criti­cized by Gwin­nett County Public Schools, which determ­ined that the new map would call for signi­fic­ant and unne­ces­sary popu­la­tion reshuff­ling between school districts, cause voter confu­sion, and redraw a board member out of the district they currently repres­ent.

A second bill, S.B. 6EX, would redraw the bound­ar­ies of the board of commis­sion­ers and double its size from 5 to 10 members, making it easier to reduce the share of seats held by minor­ity members. The same bill would also strip the current chair­per­son, the first Black woman to hold the posi­tion, of most of her voting powers by allow­ing her to vote only as a tiebreaker. Although these bills did not advance during the legis­lature’s recent special session, the spon­sor of the bills, State Sen. Clint Dixon (R) has said they will be back when the legis­lature recon­venes on Janu­ary 10. 

Regard­less, there is cause for concern that these tactics could be prolif­er­at­ing. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) has also tapped Dixon to chair a study commit­tee on nonpar­tisan elec­tions for local school board members across the state, poten­tially broad­en­ing the tactic of fuel­ing voter confu­sion in areas with burgeon­ing communit­ies of color.

Had these attacks come prior to 2013, they would have been reviewed by the Depart­ment of Justice or a federal court under the preclear­ance provi­sions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for discrim­in­at­ory impact. Geor­gia would have been barred from putting them into effect until they were determ­ined to be nondis­crim­in­at­ory. But the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted preclear­ance require­ments.

Unless Congress passes the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act to bring the VRA back to full force, Geor­gia lawmakers will have free rein to pass these bills and put them into effect without any review. Voters may be able to chal­lenge the new laws in court, but litig­a­tion, even if success­ful, could take years. All the while, the laws would remain in effect.

Gwin­nett County is a canary in the coal mine for the new diverse, multiracial Amer­ica taking shape around the coun­try. Communit­ies of color now make up over two-thirds of this formerly white-flight suburb, with substan­tial Latino, Black, and Asian communit­ies. What is happen­ing in Gwin­nett at both the local and state levels is a harbinger of what is to come without stronger voting rights laws.