Legislative Delegation Gerrymandering: UPDATE, UPDATE 2, UPDATE 3

I’ve written before about the redrawing of Georgia’s legislative district boundaries as a means by which north Fulton County Republicans have tried to overcome the Democratic leaning of the county, which went 2-1 for Obama over Romney in 2012. In Georgia, which has relatively weak home rule, a great many matters of consequence to local governments, both municipal and county, are decided in the legislature. The compromise to preserve some measure of home rule has been to allow each county’s legislative delegation to essentially act as gatekeepers for legislation of local interest. It clears the deck for statewide business and allows local communities, in principle, to decide local affairs even in a state that nominally follows Dillon’s Rule and treats local governments as “creatures of the state.”

However, this breaks down in dramatic fashion in cases where a county like Fulton is strongly internally polarized. It breaks down still further when a county like Fulton is surrounded by some strongly Republican-leaning suburban areas and when a Republican legislative supermajority is able to draw district boundaries to help augment the power of a core constituency like north Atlanta suburbanites. By redrawing legislative boundaries to connect parts of Fulton with parts of surrounding counties, the legislature’s Republican supermajority changed the majority of Fulton’s legislative delegation to Republican.

One of the first results of that was that the Fulton delegation approved a raft of Republican-sponsored legislation that has favored affluent north Fulton residents by restricting the county’s taxing powers, by converting an at-large Board of Commissioners seat to a district-based and Republican-dominated one, and by vesting control over the county elections board with the legislature instead of the Board of Commissioners. The full impact of the voting change has yet to be determined, but it’s not a big stretch to assume that the legislature will favor any and all changes that limit the ability of Black and Democratic party voters in Fulton to cast ballots. North Fulton Republicans like Hans von Spakovsky and Karen Handel have long been advocates for restrictive voter ID laws, with the former building on his experience as the chair of the Fulton County GOP to become a prominent advocate of voting restrictions, first in the George W. Bush Justice Department, and today in the pages of the National Review.

Then there’s this news item. State Senator Fran Millar, a Republican, represents Dunwoody, a recently-incorporated affluent enclave in northern DeKalb County as well as a narrow band of Sandy Springs in north Fulton County. For good measure, his 40th Senatorial District includes part of Gwinnett County, too. So Millar sits on three legislative delegations and in each case, he represents a constituency of mostly white and affluent Republicans in counties that are either majority-minority and tilt Democratic (Fulton and DeKalb) or have growing minority populations (Gwinnett) and are economically diverse. Although his district is split by the counties, his vote in each’s delegation is the same as a legislator whose district sits entirely within the county. This is a major loophole in American voting rights law that gives small numbers of county residents disproportionate influence over legislation affecting the county.

Here’s what he had to say about DeKalb County’s decision to designate a Sunday in October for early voting in the November elections, which will elect Georgia’s governor and a U.S. Senator:

Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. Per Jim Galloway of the AJC, this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist. Galloway also points out the Democratic Party thinks this is a wonderful idea – what a surprise. I’m sure Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter are delighted with this blatantly partisan move in DeKalb.

Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens? If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.

It’s possible that Millar genuinely does care about the separation of church and state, since the American Conservative Union most recently gave him a squishy, RINO-ish 88% rating. Presumably he was too busy earning a 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce and attending American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conferences to much bother with the social issues. At any rate, his church-state concerns seem to have a more instrumental purpose. The AJC’s political blogger Jim Galloway didn’t include this nugget that Think Progress picked up from Millar’s Facebook page:

On his Facebook page Tuesday, Millar stood by his comments, writing: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters. If you don’t believe this is an efort [SIC] to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple, then you are not a realist. This is a partisan stunt and I hope it can be stopped.”

So, to recap: Fran Millar gets to vote as a member of three county legislative delegations as a Georgia senator, but thinks the republic will collapse if Black voters take a church van to the mall to vote on a Sunday.

UPDATE:

Fulton County has approved Sunday early voting in October.

In entirely unrelated news, Georgia Attorney General Brian Kemp has issued a subpoena in a registration fraud investigation of the New Georgia Project’s efforts to register new voters. The group was founded by Rep. Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat. New Georgia Project claims that the investigation into their group is a naked attempt at vote suppression. The enthusiasm of Governor Nathan Deal for the investigation tends to support that argument.

Kristina Torres (or her editor) at the AJC buries the lede here, as the last paragraphs of the post make clear that this use of state resources is much more about intimidating potential voters and groups registering them than about preventing improper voting:

Fewer than 25 forms out of the 85,000 submitted are involved in the investigation, Abrams said: “What we are being accused of is turning in the information we are required by law to turn in.”

Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida and director of the United States Elections Project, said it was not unusual to have some forms flagged among tens of thousands turned in. He likened it to millions of metro Atlantans driving to work at the same time on the same roads every morning: “There are going to be accidents.”

In cases involving voter registration drives, McDonald said, “if there’s fraud, typically it’s fraud against the organization that’s coordinating the drive, not the state.” It was not unusual, he said, to flag such forms given the legal requirement to turn everything in.

“The question is, will this fraud somehow translate into fraudulent votes, and the history of this is no, it does not,” McDonald said. “There are enough checks and balances in place that the vote fraud does not occur,” including a requirement in Georgia to show identification when voting.

So, too, does a recording of Kemp speaking about the potential impact of newly registered minority voters on the November election (transcript from AJC):

“In closing I just wanted to tell you, real quick, after we get through this runoff, you know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

 

UPDATE 2:

Yes, the AJC reports, in the lede this time, we are talking about 25 out of 85,000 voter registration applications. Just like in the ACORN fiasco, New Georgia Project has inadvertently enabled its adversaries by following the law and turning problematic applications in to the county registrar, which is the only entity with the authority to disqualify a registration application. This investigation stinks.

UPDATE 3: 

As David Wickert has been reporting, the members of the Republican-dominated Fulton County legislative delegation have been meeting to discuss the coming year’s agenda. When the Assembly convenes in January 2015, expect another round of legislation aimed at shrinking Fulton government and bringing the public sector in line with the wishes of tax-averse north Fulton Republicans. As Wickert reports:

Republicans on the County Commission and in the General Assembly have long complained Fulton spends too much for a county where most residents get police, fire and other basic services from cities. They think the county should downsize, and they’re willing to use state laws that target a specific jurisdiction — known as “local legislation” — to make it happen.

“We took action,” said Rep. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta. “People thought that Fulton had not really adjusted its costs based on all the new cities.”

The fact that Millar is even part of the Fulton legislative delegation, as well as the agenda that he supports, reflects a long and successful attempt by north Fulton Republicans to use the state legislature to make an end run around the continuing power of Democrats in Fulton County. These are the rules of the game, and the north Fulton GOP understands how to make those rules work in their own interests. So this is not a matter of ethics but of politics. Still, the willingness to jump scale to the state level does undermine any principled claim to local control:

They want to be the Fulton County Commission,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Why should the 236 members of the General Assembly and the governor in effect become the Fulton County Commission?”

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Balko on Municipal Predation on the Poor

This is a compelling analysis by Radley Balko  of something that’s gotten a surprising and welcome boost of attention as a structural part of the hostility between residents and the criminal justice apparatus in places like Ferguson.

It’s by no means unique, however. Read this by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker to grasp the way that a cottage industry of entrepreneurial police officers has spread aggressive civil forfeiture across the United States.

There’s deservedly a lot of attention focused on the the predatory nature of the processes in both of these articles–that poor residents, likely to be inadequately represented in the legal system, become cash cows. Stillman also focuses on the historical role of the War on Drugs in boosting asset forfeiture as a law enforcement tool and then as a revenue stream. It’s worth noting, though, that local governments jumped on forfeiture at a point in time when Federal aid to lower levels of government retrenched. Shortfalls had to be made up, and in the structure of interlocal competition that exists in the US, making them up by taxing the wealthy, businesses, or commercial or industrial property carries the risk of capital flight. The poor, in a bitter irony, have become important to strapped local governments because, although they don’t have many assets, they are fairly immobile.

Detroit Water

Apparently, activists in Detroit have convinced the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to halt plans to shut off water to customers delinquent on bills, return the management of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the city’s elected government, and implement caps on billing linked to household income. The decision apparently comes as a bankruptcy judge was preparing to issue a decision on a restraining order preventing DWSD from shutting off water for unpaid bills. If this is a signal that Orr expected the ruling to favor water users, it’s a bit of good news.

The group Detroit Water Brigade has a statement here, which includes this key point:

We commend the move by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, City Council and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes to return control of Detroit’s water to the democratically elected leadership of the city of Detroit. This is a positive step in the direction of popular control of Detroit’s water and other common resources by the people of Detroit.

Indeed, this is bigger than Detroiters’ access to water as a right of habitation (n.b.: if you inhabit Detroit, it’s hard to imagine what could be more important) and speaks to a more general way of thinking about the way that cities have historically developed to provide for common need, as well as the ways that a privatized political economy has grown out of suburbanization to become a dominant model for urban governance as well. Because the relationship between cities and suburbs is one of dense but non-reciprocal interactions, the governance models of privatization and minimal local states that have arisen in suburbia are not just ill-suited to urban communities, they essentially depend, in the favored places where they do work, on those places’ relative advantage over other nearby places.

As I wrote in summary of Carl Smith’s excellent City Water, City Life, urban water systems provided a material basis around which cultural and political debates about common provision could cohere, and gave thousands and then millions of people a material stake in a common environment and social system. We risk more than public ownership by privatizing resources like water; we risk the idea of a public itself.