Nicole Love Hendrickson made Georgia history last year, becoming the first Black woman elected chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.
But under a bill that a Republican legislator has pledged to advance in the Georgia General Assembly early next year, Hendrickson would be stripped of most of her voting powers and the board reconfigured after Democrats of color occupied all five seats this year in a county that had once been a Republican stronghold.
“The optics are just very obvious,” Hendrickson told CNN. “It’s a perception that there’s a loss of control for Republicans, and we have people of color who are assuming leadership roles and now you are trying to take that power away.”
The expected legislative battle over the future of Gwinnett’s county board is just one of the fights flaring up at the local level as officials redraw electoral maps and work at cementing political power, following the 2020 Census. Voting rights activists are sounding alarms about what they say is a broad effort to dilute the voting strength of people of color and sideline the Black elected officials across the South who have made inroads into local government in recent decades.
In Galveston County, Texas, for instance, a map recently approved by the Republican-controlled county board is expected to squeeze out the county’s only Black commissioner. In Lee County, North Carolina, a new map adopted by a 4-3 vote of the county commission reduced the number of minority voters in the county’s only majority-minority district. If it stands, it could lead to the ouster of the county’s sole Black commissioner, after more than three decades in office.
These moves, along with redistricting efforts at the state legislative level, represent “an all-out assault on Black political power,” said Allison Riggs, co-executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is working on voting rights and redistricting issues. “We are backsliding terribly.”
They also illustrate the real-life consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to gut the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting. This is the first legislative redistricting cycle since the high court hobbled the key provision of the nation’s premier voting rights law.
Activists like Riggs say there are more efforts to limit Black political representation at the local level than voting rights advocates and Justice Department lawyers can monitor and confront. The high court, Riggs said, “threw out the umbrella that was keeping us dry in a rainstorm, and we’re getting drenched.”
On Monday, the Justice Department took its first major legal action on redistricting, when it sued Texas over the congressional and state legislative maps drawn by state lawmakers. Those maps, Justice Department lawyers argue, discriminate against Black voters and fail to take into account growth in the state’s Latino population.
People of color drove 95% of Texas’ population boom between 2010 and 2020, Census figures show. But the two new seats Texas will gain in the US House were designed to have “Anglo voting majorities,” the Justice Department said in its lawsuit.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has called the DOJ’s action “absurd” and a Biden administration “ploy to control Texas voters.”
DOJ’s lawsuit rests on one of remaining pillars of the voting law – Section 2, which paves the way for legal challenges of laws that have a racially discriminatory effect. Unlike preclearance, however, the legal action under Section 2 comes after new voting rules are enacted, and the litigation can be costly, complicated and time-consuming.
In Galveston County, Stephen Holmes – the only Black member and sole Democrat on the county’s commissioners court – is urging the Justice Department to use its remaining powers to challenge a newly approved county map that likely will cost him his seat when he is up for reelection in 2024.
Holmes, who has served on the county commission for 22 years, represents a precinct where Black and Hispanic residents currently account for about two-thirds of eligible voters, he said. But under new maps approved by the Republican majority over his objection, the minority makeup of the precinct will fall to roughly 30%, Holmes said.
“It makes every precinct a majority Anglo precinct, despite the fact that our population is about 45% minority,” Holmes told CNN. “This is an illegal map. They are diluting the votes of minorities in Galveston County.”
This is not the first fight over the contours of Holmes’ precinct.
A decade ago, when preclearance was still in effect, the Justice Department rejected an effort to redraw the county’s electoral precincts, on the grounds that they diluted minority power.
The 3-1 vote to advance the new maps last month followed a heated public hearing in which dozens of residents implored the commissioners to abandon their plans.
Edna Courville, a retired social worker who has lived in the Galveston area since 1968, was among those at the hearing and told the commissioners the plan would lead to the “destruction of the community where I have lived for 50 years.”
In an interview with CNN this week, she was still fuming.
“They took our voices away,” Courville said. “No one with power is listening.”
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, the top official on the county’s commissioners court, did not respond to a CNN interview request, nor did the two other Republican commissioners who voted in favor of the redrawn precinct.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment about the agency’s view of Galveston County’s redistricting and whether it would pursue legal action.
Holmes has vowed to fight the new map, even if the Biden administration declines to weigh in.
But he said big hurdles remain. His fellow commissioners “have an open pocketbook” of taxpayer dollars to defend the new maps, Holmes said. “And we have to assert ourselves, through litigation, with money we come up with.”
Voting rights advocates say redistricting fights at the county level often are overlooked amid the broader battles over map-making at the state and congressional level.
But Michael Li, a senior counsel and redistricting expert at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, said who controls local government is “hugely consequential” both for residents and the candidates for whom these positions can become stepping stones to higher office.
States like Texas and Georgia have seen rapid demographic change in recent years, particularly in suburban areas – making them more politically competitive, Li said.
“But as places like Gwinnett County get more diverse, communities of color are starting to challenge for power, and that threatens the status quo,” he said. “People are asking for a seat at the table, and that worries some of the people who are at the table right now.”
Georgia fight looms
Gwinnett County officials are awaiting the start of a new state legislative session early next year and a fresh fight over Republican plans to dramatically change the makeup of local government.
In 2020 – amid a blue wave that saw Joe Biden become the first Democratic presidential contender to win Georgia in nearly three decades – Democrats in Gwinnett flipped the balance of power in the state’s second most populous county.
The party took control of the Gwinnett school board, captured every seat on the county commission and won several other key elected posts, including the leadership of the district attorney’s office.
Hendrickson said she and other county leaders were “blindsided” last month when Republican state Sen. Clint Dixon introduced a bill to nearly double the size of the county commission, redraw district boundaries and strip Hendrickson of her voting powers – except to break ties.
A companion bill by Dixon also sought to make the county’s school board nonpartisan.
Dixon, a freshman lawmaker, did not respond this week to multiple telephone calls and emails from CNN seeking an interview. He has said his goal in expanding the board is to make elected officials more accountable to their constituents in a county that has grown to nearly 1 million residents.
“This bill would help the citizens of Gwinnett be better represented at the local level,” he told a Senate panel last month, during a special session of the Georgia Assembly. At the time, the measure appeared on a fast track, passing a key Senate committee just days after Dixon introduced it.
But, after public uproar, Dixon temporarily withdrew the bills. He has said he will revive the issue in January during the regular session of the state legislature – along with chairing a new legislative study committee that will weigh creating nonpartisan school boards across the state.
Republicans control both chambers of the state’s legislature, along with the governor’s office – leaving Gwinnett officials few options to stop the remake of county government if Dixon’s plans gain momentum in the state Capitol.
“The threat has not gone away,” Hendrickson said.