Three Southern States Sued Over Racial Gerrymandering

(CN) – Citing the states’ long histories of suppressing the right to vote among their black voters, an organization headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder sued three states in the Deep South, accusing them of using gerrymandering to dilute the strength of their black voters.

In Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana, local lawyers filed lawsuits in federal court against each states’ Secretary of States Wednesday alleging the Republican efforts in 2011 to redraw congressional lines left many of the minority black voters packed into one district and breaking up pockets of others.

The net effect lessened the power that one black voter has in determining who represents them in Congress, the complaints said.

The suits ask the courts to order the congressional districts redrawn and for injunctive relief preventing the use of the 2011 congressional district maps in future elections.

Each of the complaints said that lawyers from Perkins Coie, a law firm with offices in the District of Columbia and Washington State, would be submitting pro hac vice applications so they could argue the cases in those courts.

On Twitter yesterday, Holder, chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, wrote the 2011 redistricting “is a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act – we won’t stand for it.”

In April, Holder told an audience he believes issues surrounding the right to vote is today’s current civil rights issue.

In Alabama, the lawsuit filed on behalf of eight individuals focused on how the state redrew its 7th Congressional District.

Attorney Richard Rouco of the Birmingham law firm Quinn, Connor, Weaver, Davies and Rouco filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The suit that names Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill as the defendant argues Alabama could have created a second majority-minority congressional district, a district where a majority of the voters are nonwhite.

Instead, when Alabama state lawmakers redrew the congressional district map in 2011, the complaint says they packed black voters into the 7th District and diluted other black voters by distributing them across three other districts.

Currently, Rep. Terry Sewell, a Democrat and Alabama’s sole black member of Congress, fills the 7th District seat.

According to the complaint, the 7th District nets portions of Montgomery and Birmingham while skirting white counties in between, effectively consolidating a many counties where a majority of black residents reside.

In the 7th District, the votes of black citizens are also getting diluted, the lawsuit said, because Sewell garnered 72 percent support in her 2012 election. She ran unopposed in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Meanwhile one plaintiff in the Alabama lawsuit, LaKeisha Chestnut, lives in Mobile County and was unable to vote in the 2016 election, the complaint said, because while she votes Democratic the Republican vying for the congressional seat ran unopposed.

In December, black voters in Alabama came out in overwhelming numbers to elect Doug Jones to U.S. Senate. The complaint pointed out: “Senator Jones won 15 of the 17 counties that comprise the ‘traditional counties’ of the Black Belt … When the election is views through the lens of the state’s seven congressional districts, Senator Jones won only one—CD 7.”

Speaking with Courthouse News on Thursday evening, Merrill said a judge might dismiss him and his office as a party in the lawsuit because they enforce election law in Alabama, not make it.

“We don’t have anything to do with reapportionment,” Merrill said. “I am the chief elections officer in the state but we’re not the ones who draw the lines and we don’t determine who is placed in which district. That’s done by the Legislature.”

Merrill said the Alabama Legislature was sued in the past over how it reapportioned legislative boundaries. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court and the lines got redrawn.

“Those lines are the ones currently being used now in the legislative elections for 2018,” Merrill said, adding that he believes this lawsuit will not affect the 2018 midterm elections.

The lawsuit in Louisiana alleges similar things. But instead of adding a district in Louisiana, the state needed to shrink the number of congressional districts between the 2000 and 2010 census counts.  Hurricane Katrina displaced so many people and the state’s population grew at a slower rate than others.

The nine individuals named as plaintiffs brought the suit against Acting Secretary of State of Louisiana Kyle Ardoin in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. Darrel Papillion of the Baton Rouge law firm Walters, Papillion, Thomas, Cullens LLC submitted the suit.

According to the 2010 census, Louisiana has the second highest percentage of black residents, 32.6 percent.

While the minority population in the state could support two minority majority districts, the state’s legislature only made one of Louisiana’s six districts one, the complaint said.

The 2nd District is shaped like a crescent, with its points touching New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and its seat is filled by Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat.

“As evidenced by an array of factors,” the Louisiana complaint said, “such as the history of racial discrimination in voting, the perpetuation of racial appeals in Louisiana elections, and the socio-economic effects of decades of discrimination against African Americans that hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process, Louisiana’s failure to create a second majority-minority congressional district in its 2011 Congressional Plan has resulted in the dilution of African American voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Requests for comment sent to the Louisiana Secretary of State from Courthouse News did not receive immediate replies, as did questions sent to attorneys Rouco in Alabama and Papillion in Louisiana.

In Georgia, a federal complaint was filed on behalf of four black voters challenged the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan, alleging that the plan intentionally dilutes black voting strength.

The complaint alleges that that 2011 redistricting plan was designed to “ensure that the rapid growth in [Georgia’s] minority population did not translate to increased minority voting strength or political influence.”

Between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, the state of Georgia experienced a boom in its black, Latino, and Asian populations. Over 80 percent of the state’s total population growth during this period was due to minorities.

According to the 2010 Census, Georgia’s black population grew by over 25 percent during that ten-year period and now comprises over 30 percent of Georgia’s total population.

The rapid growth allowed Georgia to obtain a fourteenth congressional seat.

By 2010, the minority population in and around Georgia’s 12th Congressional District was so numerous and geographically compact that an additional majority-minority congressional district was necessary, the complaint alleges.

But Georgia’s General Assembly excised black voters in Savannah instead, adding white voters from nearby counties to reduce the black voting age population in the 12th Congressional District from 41.5 percent to 33.3 percent, the complaint claims.

The General Assembly’s redistricting plan, also known as House Bill 20EX, “dispersed geographically compact African-American communities into surrounding districts,” gerrymandering the districts to dilute black voting strength in the area and denying those voters “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” the complaint says.

Instead of creating a new majority-minority congressional district, the General Assembly’s tactics led to the creation of the 9th Congressional District–the district with the smallest black population anywhere in the state.

“Rather than create additional districts in which Georgia’s growing African-American population would have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, the Republican-controlled General Assembly did just the opposite: it cracked politically cohesive and geographically compact African-American communities to dilute their influence in what was originally a competitive district,” the complaint says.

The complaint alleges that the redistricting has already had serious consequences.

“Under the new congressional district map, a Republican candidate defeated the African-American community’s candidate of choice, Democratic incumbent John Barrow, in the 2014 congressional election, which gave Republicans the [12th Congressional District] seat for the first time since 2004,” the complaint states.

The complaint also claims that partisan politics caused black Democratic legislators to be excluded from the redistricting process.

The lawsuit states that Republican legislators “did not initially inform” Democrats of the creation of the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office, which is described on the General Assembly’s website as a “Joint Office… responsible for providing the General Assembly with redistricting services.”

According to the complaint, the redistricting plan received little to no support from black legislators. In the House, 40 of the 41 black representatives voted against the plan. No black senators voted in favor of the plan.

In a 2011 statement, congressman John Lewis called the redistricting map “an affront to the spirit and the letter of the Voting Rights Act.”

The voters seek a declaration that HB 20EX violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. They also request an injunction preventing Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp from enforcing the law or conducting any further elections under the current map.

A representative for Secretary Kemp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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