Showing posts with label Voting Rights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Voting Rights. Show all posts

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Restoring voting rights after a felony is rare in Tennessee. This year, the process got harder.

Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement rate was second only to Mississippi’s before recent guidance further complicated the path to restoring voting rights. Restoration advocates seek to roll back the new rules, as well as achieve changes they say are long overdue.

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman
Janiqua Thompson was in her early 20s when she began stealing from the hotel she worked for. Her motivation was to catch up on bills to support her mother and three younger brothers, but her felony conviction only added more financial strain. She spent a day in jail and three years on probation, faced $20,000 in restitution fees and lost her voting rights.

“I made a decision that impacted my family way worse than I thought it would,” Thompson, now 28, said. “I let a temporary circumstance control my future.”

With her probation behind her and a three-year-old daughter to raise, Thompson wants to regain her voting rights. She wants a say in the leaders shaping her country and community and to feel like a full citizen again. But now, along with the more than 470,000 Tennesseans with felony convictions excluded from the polls, she faces a voting rights restoration process made more difficult in recent months.

“I would love to have a voice,” Thompson said. “I just want to be able to change things for my kid.”

In at least 35 states, those with felony convictions can vote again after their full sentence is complete, and several states have eased the path to voting rights restoration in recent years. But in Tennessee, where financial and logistical hurdles already prevent many from regaining their rights, the process has become harder. In July, Tennessee officials issued new guidance mandating that instead of choosing between two paths of restoration, those with felony convictions would need to complete both.

Nearly 10% of the voting population in Tennessee is excluded from the polls because of felony convictions, a rate second only to Mississippi and one that especially affects people of color. One in five Black Tennessee residents is unable to vote because of a felony conviction, the highest rate in the nation.

“We have already had, before this new rule, the most complex voter restoration laws of any state,” said Dawn Harrington, founder of Free Hearts in Nashville that supports families navigating incarceration. “This is a huge obstacle that has been put in front of us.”

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office reported that nearly 3,350 Tennesseans regained their voting rights since 2018, which is fewer than one percent of those disenfranchised with a felony conviction who have completed their sentences.

The new guidance has further slowed the pace of restoration but has also spurred a new sense of urgency around the issue. Free Hearts and other reentry support groups have begun collaborating across the state to educate more attorneys on the process and to push harder for action from lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee.

“This is a big moment for shining the light on a process that has long been broken,” Blair Bowie, a director at Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, said. “This new guidance really exposes just how big of a problem Tennessee has with felony disenfranchisement.”

‘There is no process in place’

For decades, Tennesseans with felony convictions could regain voting rights by receiving a pardon or by restoring their citizenship rights in court. In 2006, lawmakers added another alternative: complete a certificate verifying all legal debts were paid and child support was up to date. Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins cited a June Tennessee Supreme Court decision in recently declaring that the two existing paths are both required.

The 2006 option had become the preferred path for Tennesseans seeking to restore their voting rights. The citizenship restoration process, now step one, can take several months and typically requires help from an attorney. Lawyers often gather dozens of pages of documentation to present to the judge, including letters of recommendation and certificates from programs completed during incarceration. Prosecutors can again testify against an individual, and approval is up to a judge’s discretion, which can be intimidating for many who were previously convicted. A court appearance also means new court fees. In Memphis and in Nashville, the amount is about $160.

“Some folks, they just don’t want to have to relitigate anything about their case again. They don’t want to have to stand in judgment again,” said Keeda Haynes, a Free Hearts legal advisor in Nashville. “It can be very triggering for folks.” She added, “People are not going to have the money for the filing fees and people are not going to have the money to pay a lawyer.”

Few online resources are available on how to file a petition for citizenship restoration. Staff at the Davidson County Circuit Court Clerk’s office said petition forms were not yet available but they could be drawn up. In more rural Coffee and Benton counties, circuit court staff did not have information on how to proceed with the citizenship restoration petition.

When Shelby County Office of Re-Entry Director DeAndre Brown sought to help his Memphis clients with voting rights ahead of the recent city elections, he found few officials could advise him on the citizenship petition process. He created a court filing form that Thompson and others used to file for a court date and a Memphis nonprofit agreed to pay the court fees.

“We reached out to the clerk’s office and the (district attorney’s) office and no one was really sure on what to do,” Brown said. “Really, there is no process in place, no standard that people can just look to. Everyone has questions and since they have questions, no one really wants to do it the wrong way. So, people just didn’t do it.”

The cost of voting rights

If Thompson gains a judge’s approval for citizenship, she will then have to complete the second part of the voter restoration process by certifying her legal debts have been paid. While she said she feels confident going before a judge again, she is less certain on how she will cover the more than $1,000 in court debt and any restitution or probation fees still owed. She said she made payments during her probation by waiting tables and turning to family and friends for support. The amount owed could not be confirmed through multiple calls to probation authorities.

“I just basically worked as much as I could,” Thompson said “It was really hell. I’m still getting my life together, even now.”

Tennessee is one of about 10 states that tie voting rights to legal financial obligations and it is the only state that requires child support payments are up to date, according to 2022 research by the Sentencing Project. For some individuals, the debt owed is insurmountable and can be as high as six figures, Harrington said. Many formerly incarcerated individuals, because of their convictions, struggle to find work and to cover the cost of basic needs like housing, food and transportation, making legal costs especially challenging to resolve.

Beyond the requirements, the process itself poses hurdles to individuals and is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed against Tennessee. In the 2022 complaint, plaintiffs described the process as “a wild-goose chase” and demanded new safeguards to ensure a uniform and responsive system.

For each felony conviction, individuals must gain signatures from a parole or probation officer, and sometimes a county court clerk, whose willingness and training varies by county. If restoration is denied, there is no appeals process. For those with out-of-state convictions, completing the restoration documents can mean road trips, plane flights or multiple days off work. Several convictions, including murder and rape, are permanently disqualified.

“It’s so inaccessible and opaque and error ridden,” said Bowie, who is representing the plaintiffs in the 2022 federal lawsuit. “The process is just a huge mess.”

Law students who had begun helping Tennessee clients pursue the 2006 certificate process prior to the new guidance, have begun also compiling lengthy citizenship petitions for those who still want to move forward and more legal groups are joining these efforts, said Joy Radice, director of University of Tennessee’s Legal Clinic in Knoxville. A pro-bono attorney who might have helped 10 clients at clinics, now is likely to focus on just one.

“We have definitely had to be strategic about slowly helping a smaller number of clients because of this change,” Radice said. “From our clients’ perspective, it’s extremely discouraging.”

Since July, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office has recorded 40 denials for voting rights restoration and one approval. About 35 Tennesseans have gained voting rights by expunging their convictions, a process available to some felonies after certain time periods. Hargett’s office declined to comment on the new voting rights guidance because of the ongoing litigation.

Still, Radice is heartened by the response she has seen from legal leaders and activists since July. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is launching a pilot project on civil rights restoration in January and has begun training law students and attorneys for the project. Free Hearts continues a letter writing campaign on the issue and brought together advocates from across the state in September to determine next steps.

“It feels like there is more energy, and my hope is that that will lead to attention that will lead to legislative change,” Radice said.

‘We need the Governor to act’

Harrington is looking directly to Lee for action. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, issued an executive order in 2020 restoring voting rights for those with felony convictions who completed their sentences, with the exception of homicide offenses. Harrington discussed the concept with members of Lee’s and Reynolds’s staff in March and said Lee’s officials seemed receptive to the concept. That was before the Secretary of State’s office made the voting process more challenging.

“We need the Governor to act,” Harrington said.

Lee, who has long pushed for criminal justice reform and reentry support, said in October he is not considering an executive order, but he encouraged Tennessee lawmakers to discuss potential changes to voting rights laws.

♦In Tennessee, there are more than 377,000 disenfranchised residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentences.

♦Fewer than 1 percent, or nearly 3,350 Tennesseans, have had their voting rights restored since 2018. n Tennessee, nearly 10 percent of the voting age population is disenfranchised from a felony conviction, ranking second in the nation. Only Mississippi ranks higher. The national rate is 2 percent.

♦Tennessee leads the nation with the highest disenfranchisement rate of Black residents with felony convictions, at 21 percent. Nationally, the rate is 5 percent.

♦Tennessee leads the nation with the highest disenfranchisement rate of Latinx residents with felony convictions, at 8 percent. The national rate is less than 2 percent.

“At least have the conversation, make sure that the General Assembly is engaged in that,” Lee said. “It’s much more appropriate to use the process of legislation to do that.”

For voting rights advocates, reversing the new guidance from Goins legislatively is imperative, but it is just the minimum of fixes needed in Tennessee. “A bill that just goes back to the system we had last year is not enough,” Bowie said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought changes to the restoration process for years. In 2019, two Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed to reinstate voting rights for those who completed their sentences, regardless of their ability to pay civil or criminal fees, and to streamline the process of restoration. Similar legislation was introduced in 2021 and 2023 by Democrat lawmakers, including State Sen. Raumesh Akbari.

“Your financial situation should not impact your ability to vote and exercise your voice,” Akbari said. “We have talked about the power of redemption and the purpose of the justice system. Surely, someone should not have to be abridged to their right to vote for the rest of their lives.”

Some victims’ rights advocates disagree that the path to restoration should be eased. Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims, supports those who have been able to restore their rights through the current process, but she also wants individuals with felony convictions to have to gain approval after a certain period of time following their conviction.

“People should be able to earn back their voting rights. I don’t think it should be something that is automatic.” Wyatt said, speaking for herself and not her organization. “They broke trust with the community and, many times, they broke trust in a very, very big way. That’s part of accountability and consequences.”

Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he would need more details on potential legislation before determining his support. He disagreed with the term “disenfranchisement” to describe those who lost their vote because of a felony offense.

“They disenfranchised themselves by committing the crime,” Sexton said. “I don’t consider the state disenfranchising them when they are the ones who committed the crime.”

Although her probation sentence is behind her, Thompson says she still faces the ramifications of her crime whenever she applies for a job or a rental to live in. Voting rights is one more consequence she wants to move past.

“My mistake was done seven years ago,” Thompson said. “It’s really an ongoing battle. You start to wonder, when are they going to stop punishing us?”

This article originally appeared in the Tennessee Lookout on December 7th, 2023.  

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman

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Dems Unveil Bill to Guarantee Incarcerated Citizens Right to Vote, Common Dreams

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Dems Unveil Bill to Guarantee Incarcerated Citizens Right to Vote

"This bill champions inclusion and representation, which are vital for community reintegration and public safety," said one supporter.

Members of the National Voting in Prison Coalition and other advocacy groups on Wednesday welcomed the introduction of Democratic legislation that would end felony disenfranchisement in federal elections and guarantee incarcerated U.S. citizens the right to vote.

"Too often, citizens behind the wall and those with a record are wrongfully stripped of their sacred right to vote and denied the opportunity to participate in our democracy," said U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who is leading the bill with Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Pressley stressed that "with Republicans and the Supreme Court stopping at nothing to undermine voting rights and exclude Black and brown folks from participating in our democracy, we must protect and expand access to the ballot box—including for incarcerated citizens."

"As someone whose family has been personally impacted by mass incarceration, I'm proud to partner with Sen. Welch on the Inclusive Democracy Act to ensure everyone can make their voice heard in our democracy," she added. "Momentum is growing in states across the country and Congress must follow suit by swiftly passing this crucial legislation."

The National Voting in Prison Coalition—made up of over two dozen groups including the Campaign Legal Center, Center for Popular Democracy, Common Cause, DÄ“mos, Stand Up America, and the Sentencing Project—said that "the Inclusive Democracy Act stands as a beacon of hope for the more than 4.6 million Americans currently disenfranchised due to criminal convictions."

"The Inclusive Democracy Act of 2023 is a long-overdue step towards fulfilling the promise of our democracy, where every American has a voice and a stake in shaping our nation's future," the coalition continued.

Some coalition members also put out their own statements of support. Common Cause's Keshia Morris Desir said that "the Inclusive Democracy Act takes significant steps to help end the racist and discriminatory practice of felony disenfranchisement that grips communities of color."

Stand Up America's Sunwoo Oh called felony disenfranchisement "a stain on American democracy" and pledged that the group's nearly 2 million members "are ready to do whatever we can to push this legislation forward at the federal level."

Nicole D. Porter of the Sentencing Project noted that "not only is expanding voting rights the morally correct thing to do—it is also effective policy: For people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system, restoring voting rights has been linked to reduced recidivism, as it helps them rehabilitate and reintegrate into civic life."

According to its sponsors, the bill would:

  • Guarantee the right to vote in federal elections for citizens who have criminal convictions;
  • Require state and federal entities to notify individuals who are convicted, incarcerated, on probation, or on parole of their right to vote in federal elections;
  • Outline the process for citizens in carceral settings to register to vote by mail, if registration is required by their state;
  • Outline the process for citizens in carceral settings to vote by mail, including protecting and prioritizing election mail, curing ballots with mistakes, and casting a provision ballot;
  • Ensure citizens in carceral settings have access to information about elections through mechanisms available to them such as the internet, campaigns, and third-party groups;
  • Provide guidance to state officials to not prosecute citizens in carceral settings who complete an election ballot that includes an election they are not eligible to vote in; and
  • Provide a private right of action to enforce this legislation.

"This bill champions inclusion and representation, which are vital for community reintegration and public safety," said David Ayala of the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People & Families Movement. "It ensures that the voices of those directly impacted by the criminal legal system shape federal policies, addressing reentry challenges effectively."

Jeremiah Mungo of More Than Our Crimes declared that "every American deserves a voice in their homeland."

The new bill is backed by 17 other House Democrats as well as Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled lower chamber or split Senate. Despite the odds, lawmakers have also unveiled other voting rights measures throughout the year, including the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

This article originally appeared in the Common Dreams on December 7th, 2023.  

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Monday, November 20, 2023

'Travesty for Democracy': Court Guts Key Part of Voting Rights Act

By Jake Johnson

"This decision is a devastating blow to the civil rights of every American, and the integrity of our nation's electoral system."

A federal appeals court on Monday ruled that only the U.S. Department of Justice can bring lawsuits under Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a decision that—if upheld—would deprive private citizens and advocacy groups of the ability to file legal challenges to fight discriminatory election practices.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there is no "private right of action" under that part of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits "any voting standard, practice, or procedure that results in the denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."

Judge David Stras, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote in the majority opinion that "the who-gets-to-sue question is the centerpiece of today's case."

"The Voting Rights Act lists only one plaintiff who can enforce § 2: the attorney general," Stras added, acknowledging that "we must decide whether naming one excludes others."

Stras and Judge Raymond Gruender, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, argued that it does, siding with a 2022 lower court ruling. Chief Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith—also a Bush appointee—wrote in dissent that he "would follow existing precedent that permits citizens to seek a judicial remedy" until either the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress changes the law.  "Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government's agents for protection," Smith wrote.

"The court has gutted one of the most critical protections against voting discrimination."

The case stems from a legal challenge that Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel—represented by the ACLU of Arkansas—brought against the state of Arkansas in late 2021. Filed under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the lawsuit argued that a redistricting plan for Arkansas House races would illegally "undermine the voting strength of Black Arkansans."

"This ruling is a travesty for democracy," Sophia Lin Lakin, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "For generations, private individuals have brought cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to protect their right to vote. No court had denied them the ability to bring their claims in federal court—with the sole exception of the district court, and now the 8th Circuit."

Barry Jefferson, political action chair of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, added that "this decision is a devastating blow to the civil rights of every American, and the integrity of our nation's electoral system."

"By stripping individuals of the ability to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act," said Jefferson, "the court has gutted one of the most critical protections against voting discrimination."

The 8th Circuit ruling is widely expected to face an appeal at the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, which delivered a surprise victory for civil rights advocates earlier this year when it declined to gut what remains of the Voting Rights Act.

If the 8th Circuit's decision stands, an administration hostile to the Voting Rights Act could simply decline to enforce Section 2, a potential disaster for fundamental freedoms nationwide.

Experts were stunned by the court's willingness to dispense with decades of precedent by ruling against the right of private citizens to sue under Section 2.

"The brazenness of this decision is something else," wrote Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at Harvard Law School. "The thousands of litigants who have brought Section 2 claims? The thousands of courts who have decided these cases? Somehow they all missed what these two judges, in their infinite wisdom, finally saw."

Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that "this radical 8th Circuit decision would essentially gut the remaining nationwide protections of the Voting Rights Act by preventing anyone other than [the Department of Justice] from enforcing them."

"This is deeply wrong," Weiser added, "and it goes against decades of precedent and practice."

This article originally appeared in the Common Dreams on November 17th, 2023.  

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

Bills to improve voting access for incarcerated individuals draw support from lawmakers, advocates

‘Pennsylvania can care about our democracy and promoting real justice and safety,’ state Rep. Rick Krajewski said

With the general election weeks away, lawmakers and advocates are calling for legislation to better inform incarcerated Pennsylvanians about their right to vote and permit them to vote via absentee ballot. 

Supporters of House Bill 1756 and its counterpart House Bill 1757 — bills that would permit all incarcerated individuals to vote in Pennsylvania, provide voter information to correctional facilities, and direct the Department of State to create a “uniform policy for civic education” in correctional institutions — gathered on the Capitol steps Wednesday, hoping to garner support for the legislation currently before the House State Government Committee. 

The bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Rick Krajewski (D-Philadelphia) said that the legislation is needed to prevent “de-facto disenfranchisement.”

“This process will include dissemination of registration forms, ballot applications and ballots, civic education for voters to learn how to cast their vote, and designated staff to handle the collection and return of ballots. We will also be collecting data from each facility to oversee the effectiveness of their procedures,” Krajewski said. 

As long as they have been citizens for at least one month before the next election and will be at least 18 years of age on election day, many incarcerated individuals are currently allowed to vote in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The list includes pretrial detainees, convicted misdemeanants, individuals who have been released (or will be released by the date of the next election) from a correctional facility or halfway house upon completion of their term of incarceration for conviction of a misdemeanor or a felony, individuals who are on probation or released on parole, and individuals who are under house arrest, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

The problem, lawmakers said, is that many eligible individuals don’t know it. 

“If you can empower and engage folks on the inside, who are at one of their lowest moments, and get them to engage in our democracy — What happens when they come home?” state Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) asked. “What kind of ambassadors, what kind of advocates are they going to be? Say: ‘Look, I voted, and I was on the inside, what’s your excuse?’”

Rabb, who said supporting the bill was “a no-brainer” for him, called the pair of bills “super voter” bills for their ability to empower more Pennsylvanians to cast their votes on election day. 

“Having people closest to the pain informed the policy — that will allow for justice for all,” Rabb said. 

State Rep. Aerion Abney, a Democrat representing Allegheny County, echoed Rabb’s comments about the potential impact of the legislation. 

“If you are someone who is extremely passionate about protecting our democracy, and expanding access to the ballot and voting rights, then this bill is for you,” state Rep. Aerion Abney (D-Allegheny) said. “If you are someone that cares about criminal justice reform, and protecting the rights of the people who are in our county jails, this bill is also for you as well.”

The rally to support the bills comes just a day after students from across the commonwealth gathered at the Capitol for another voting-related cause, urging lawmakers to consider two bills that would end closed primary elections in Pennsylvania and bring more voters to the polls on election day. 

The flurry of activity around voting rights is also happening as the Legislature quibbles over when Pennsylvania’s 2024 presidential primary should be held, as the current April 23 date conflicts with Passover.

“We have the opportunity to rewrite history,” Krajewski said. “Pennsylvania has historically been one of the worst states in our country when it comes to our carceral system. While we have the wind behind our backs, while we have this majority, we must use this political moment to say another world is possible, that Pennsylvania can be a state that believes everyone deserves a second chance, that Pennsylvania can care about our democracy and promoting real justice and safety.”

Photo credit: 

Originally published on October 18th, 2023, in Penn Capital-Star

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Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Challenge to political maps to proceed with state’s claim Black voting power isn’t diluted

Outcome could upend politics ahead of the 2024 election


A federal trial that could force state lawmakers to redraw Georgia’s political maps ahead of next year’s election will enter its second week Monday.

Five lawsuits have been filed challenging the GOP-drawn maps that came out of a special session in 2021, but this trial features three of them, including challenges from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Black voters across the state.

So far, the action has centered on the attorneys for the plaintiffs who are trying to show that the maps dilute the Black vote and violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. If Judge Steve C. Jones rules in their favor, state lawmakers could be sent back to draw up new district lines.  

This week, lawyers representing the state will have a chance to present their defense of the maps, which they acknowledge were designed to protect the Republican majority but say they are fair to Black voters. They have so far framed the legal challenges as a veiled attempt to elect more Democrats, and they say the alternative district lines offered up by the plaintiffs are overly focused on race.

The state’s attorneys have argued that recent elections undermine claims that Black voters are not able to elect candidates of their choice, pointing to the wins of U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in the Atlanta suburbs and President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in statewide races.

The outcome of the case could prove consequential heading into next year’s election, since Black Georgians tend to vote for Democratic candidates at high rates. Republicans currently hold a fragile majority in the U.S. House, and any Democratic gains in the state Legislature would add to tightening margins under the Gold Dome.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently stood behind Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in a surprise ruling this summer that rejected Alabama’s congressional map. A redrawn plan that still did not include a new opportunity district for Black Alabamians was blasted last week by a three-judge panel, which ordered a third-party special master to do the job.

In Georgia, the cases at trial argue a new majority Black congressional district can be drawn in metro Atlanta and that multiple new Black majority districts can be carved out in the state House and Senate maps. 

William S. Cooper, a private consultant who created the alternative map, said he was asked to explore whether the Black population in Georgia was large and compact enough to warrant an additional congressional district. But he said race was just one of many factors he considered. 

“It practically draws itself,” Cooper said last week, describing the task as “very straightforward, easy.”

That district, congressional District 6, is today represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick who won in 2022 after state lawmakers shifted the boundary lines to favor a GOP candidate. The change prompted the previous incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black, to challenge fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in the racially diverse 7th District based in Gwinnett County.

As a result, Republicans now hold nine of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats, up from eight under the old map.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs argue Georgia’s political maps dilute Black voting power and do not reflect the state’s changing demographics. The number of Black Georgians grew by about 484,000 people since 2010, with 33% of the state now identifying as Black. Meanwhile, the number of white Georgians dropped by 52,000.

They have put experts on the witness stand who say Black voters are left underrepresented in the halls of power and stuck with a system that is unresponsive to what they argue are Black Georgians’ distinctive needs when it comes to issues like health care access, education, employment and social justice.

“Across every metric I looked at, Black individuals are doing worse than white individuals,” testified Loren Collingwood, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who analyzed socio-economic data.

Collingwood presented voter turnout results that showed a widening gap between Black and white voters in recent election cycles, though the state argued that the same data also showed Black turnout increasing.

The judge has also heard from Black residents across the state who have launched unsuccessful bids for public office.

Diane Brack Evans, who lives in Jefferson County, has been active in Democratic politics, including three runs for a state Senate seat. But she testified Thursday that she was not so much interested in electing a Democrat as she was in wanting an elected official who would “take an interest in her community.”

Evans shared a personal story about her late sister who had chronic medical conditions but was not eligible for Medicaid coverage and eventually ended up uninsured. Evans let her sister move in and she filled in as her sister’s physical therapist. Her story was not all that unique, she said.

“This is really how it is in this area here,” she said.

Fenika Miller, who also testified for the plaintiffs, is a lifelong Houston County resident who has run twice for the state House as a Democratic candidate – including once against a Black Republican – and is now the deputy national field director for the Black Voters Matter Fund.

Miller was asked by the state’s attorney if the alternative maps would help elect more Democrats. She responded that the maps would allow “more Black voters to have a say in what their representation looked like – regardless of party.” 

This article originally appeared in The Georgia Recorder on September 12th, 2023, of the State News Room network  

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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Supreme Court Poised to Shred What's Left of Voting Rights Act, Plaintiffs Warn

"If the court sides with Alabama," wrote a pair of plaintiffs in Merrill v. Milligan, "political opportunities for people of color will disappear."

photo credit: David Sachs

"If the court's right-wing supermajority has its way, Merrill v. Milligan will open the floodgates for racial gerrymandering across the country and diminish the political power of voters of color," Stand Up America deputy political director Reggie Thedford said Monday in a statement.

Although Black voters comprise nearly one-third of Alabama's population, the congressional map approved last November by the state's GOP-controlled Legislature contains just one majority-Black district out of seven total districts—the illegal result, civil rights advocates argued successfully in a lawsuit filed in federal district court, of "packing" most Black voters into a single district and "cracking" others across multiple districts. To date, no Black candidate in Alabama has ever won in a majority-white congressional district.

A trio of federal judges—including two appointed by former President Donald Trump—unanimously sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that Alabama's recently adopted congressional map unconstitutionally denies equal representation and likely violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by diminishing Black voters' ability to elect candidates of their choice.