BY ARIEL HART
ATLANTA — Florence Baggs, an African-American nurse and school board member in rural Long County, Ga., was working at her clinic desk when she got the phone call last year from the U.S. Department of Justice. The county commission’s newly drawn districts would dilute Black voting strength, the caller said, and there was another way.
Within months, the lines were redrawn. A new, Black commission member, recruited by Baggs, was elected to office.
Last week, the Supreme Court removed the Justice Department’s authority to “preclear” voting procedures throughout Georgia and other southern states. The agency’s lawyers will no longer play watchdog, objecting to election changes that, in their analysis, would hinder racial and ethnic minorities’ ability to elect the candidates of their choice. Enacting such hindrances is still illegal, but the people who feel wronged will have to take their grievances to the courts.
That may lead to high-profile lawsuits in urban hubs such as Fulton County and in state capitols. But many civil rights experts say it’s less likely in places such as Long County, which are far from the big-city hives of lawyers, television stations and advocacy groups. People in rural counties are less likely to have the expertise and money required, they say.
Not as much scrutiny
As in Long County, they may not even know that a change is discriminatory.
“In rural areas, there just isn’t as much under-the-microscope scrutiny,” said Gerry Hebert, a private lawyer who worked at the Justice Department for 21 years.
“I’m very concerned, especially as the Hispanic population is really growing rapidly across Southern states in these rural areas,” said Matt Barreto, a political scientist and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based research firm.
For the nonprofit groups that take on such cases, “there’s going to be this triage,” Barreto said, with changes that affect big populations getting more focus.
Looking at it from the other side, the vast majority of jurisdictions, which have never been flagged by the Justice Department, won’t have to spend taxpayers’ money to prepare the documents required by the preclearance process.
And no one will build up a resentment, feeling tarred with the same brush as the bigots who once used poll taxes, literacy tests, police dogs, fire hoses and worse to keep Black people from voting.
“Things have changed drastically,” said June Merritt, the White commission chairwoman of Early County, which hasn’t been flagged in decades. Merritt, who has lived in the county all her 67 years, said voters there just elected a Black commissioner and a Black sheriff, and she gives both good reviews.
“I think it’s just useless,” she said of the preclearance requirement. The county will still take care to be equitable in its voting policies, she said. “It’s not something that we would take lightly.”
12 cases since 2000
For nearly 50 years, since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Justice Department’s legal machine churned. Every time a government in Georgia or eight other mostly Southern states proposed a voting change — the shape of districts, the location of polling places, the dates of elections — agency analysts would consult demographic maps and invite local people to comment.
The intent of those proposing the change wasn’t always relevant; if the analysts found that it had a discriminatory effect, the department would reject it.
Over the years the agency stopped more than 170 voting-related changes in Georgia. While the ones drawing the most attention often involved the entire state, such as the voter verification system, the agency intervened in 111 individual counties, towns and school districts, the vast majority far from metro Atlanta.
The 12 cases since 2000 almost all involved outlying counties with higher poverty rates and lower percentages of college graduates than the state as a whole.
“Most of the tactics that are being used to disenfranchise voters and dilute the strength of the vote are taking place in these rural counties,” said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia state conference of the NAACP. “People are not as educated on issues.”
Some cases arose from apparently honest mistakes; a few involved long-running, poisonous political battles with racial overtones.
Henry Cook was elected to the Randolph County school board in 1993 from a district with a strong majority of Black voters. Cook, who is Black, was soon at loggerheads with White board members over a range of issues.
The next time the districts were redrawn, the district line went right through his property. Since then, Cook’s lawyer estimates that the pre-clearance requirement has kept Cook in office four times, as county officials tried different maneuvers to challenge his residency in the district.
One of Cook’s nemeses, county lawyer Tommy Coleman, says the battle is political, not racial, with Blacks and Whites on both sides. He paints Cook as a bad manager and petty tyrant who has been jailed for limiting his fellow school board members’ participation at meetings.
Changes often subtle
Coleman agrees that poverty and lack of education exacerbate the potential for abuses in rural areas, but he said that cuts both ways.
“One of the ways that Henry Cook and others are able to hold onto power is that their constituents are so undereducated, so poor, that they’re easily led,” Coleman said.
In a case such as Cook’s it’s easy to see what the fuss is about. But in many if not most cases, experts say, potentially discriminatory changes are far more subtle.
Minutes before the Supreme Court decision was announced, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said, “Georgia does not need to be under the supervision of the Department of Justice for everything that we do, including such minute things as moving a polling place from one side of the street to the other.”
But that’s exactly the kind of thing that can make a huge difference, said DuBose of the NAACP.
In 1995 the Justice Department rejected Jenkins County’s plans for a new polling place. The old one was in a Black neighborhood with sidewalks, crosswalks and streetlights, easily reached by the 38 percent of Black households that owned no car.
To replace it, the county chose a place outside the city limits with no sidewalks on a 55-mph highway, presumably no problem for the 96 percent of white households with a car.
No one has suggested that Georgia will revert to the terror and pervasive intimidation of the Jim Crow South. But DuBose said people who live in big cities don’t really understand how far back other places could go.
“We’ve got schools having segregated proms,” he said. “We still deal with a mass of people who would easily see this as a victory for the Jim Crow era.”
The Supreme Court majority was not swayed by such doomsaying. Instead, the majority opinion stressed the “dramatic” changes since 1965 including surging levels of black voter registration.
Came with a cost
In Long County, Black former commissioner David Richardson recalls that in his parents’ day, the county boss made sure people went to a cookout instead of the polling place on Election Day. That’s long past, he said, and he was elected by a district split between Whites, Blacks and Latinos before a more popular White opponent unseated him last year.
But having the Justice Department in the mix definitely made a difference for the county’s Black voters, he said.
When the county held elections under the lines the Justice Department had questioned, an all-White commission resulted. In the election that followed the federally mandated re-drawing, the Black candidate recruited by Florence Baggs won a seat.
“Most people wouldn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to bring a lawsuit,” Richardson said. “They wouldn’t know who to contact, what it takes when there is a violation.”
For her part, Baggs says she wasn’t dissatisfied with the White incumbent she helped to unseat. “When I went to him for any kind of issue he listened,” she said.
In this case, she said, the implementation of the Voting Rights Act also came with a cost. “I feel that it created some tension,” Baggs said. “It probably was good and bad.”
Got something done
Jeanette Johnson, a retired school custodian and African-American who lives in the district in question, is less equivocal. The new Black commissioner is the only one she’s ever met. He came out campaigning this year and asked what her issues were.
When he won, he delivered: County crews recently dug a drainage ditch along a county road that used to flood her yard.
She says that before the election her son-in-law twice went to county staff, trying to get the drainage fixed, to no avail.
Black officials will take more interest in Black constituents’ issues, Johnson said.
“They will,” she said. “They will.”