An Old Metropolitical Friend

As the race to succeed Tom Price in the 6th Georgia House district settles into a runoff contest between Jon Ossoff and former Fulton County Commission chair Karen Handel, Handel has raised an old rallying cry: If it’s hard to secure a majority of the votes, it’s because it’s too easy for your opponents to cast a ballot. This, of course, dates back to Handel’s days in Fulton County politics, where she led a faction of north Fulton Republicans who were continually frustrated by the way that the black Democratic majority of the commission represented their constituents. In Fulton County in the late 1990s, Handel supported the shrinking of county government through budget cutting and advocated the “municipalization” of north Fulton into incorporated, white majority cities that privatized services, cut taxes, and avoided the established County workforce. I wrote about that in a scholarly way here, and also touched on some of the ironies of “good government” justifications for incorporation here.

Handel won election as Georgia’s Secretary of State, where she made the implementation of a controversial voter ID law written by fellow Fulton County Republican Hans von Spakovsky a top priority. This bill disenfranchised tens of thousands of Georgians due to false-positive matches in a database of convicts and other ineligible voters, without, as Richard Doner, Jonathan Schneer, and Dan Amsterdam have noted, demonstrably preventing any fraudulent voting (link to .pdf). It might not surprise you to know that studies of these database services demonstrate that the frequency of common names among Asian, Latino/a, and African American citizens contributes to higher rates of false matches, and therefore more wrongful disenfranchisement and more vote suppression, for members of those groups.

I’ve argued that that was hardly accidental, and not distinct from Handel’s background in Fulton County metropolitics, where voter turnout was a crucial factor in governing a county that was racially, ideologically, and socioeconomically divided between its north and south ends. While we think of vote suppression as consequential to the recent Presidential contest (as Ari Berman’s great reporting stresses), it has a great impact in metropolitan areas too, where gerrymandered districts, voting restrictions, and other tactics can create significant divergence between the people governed and their representatives in both local and state government.

More recently, Handel castigated the decision of Judge Timothy Batten (a G.W. Bush-appointed Republican) to overturn the state’s restrictive registration period for the congressional runoff election:

“Its [sic] clear Jon Ossoff’s campaign to deceive the voters of the 6th District is not working. When the Democrats can’t win Elections following the rules – rules they themselves authored and enforced for years – they file partisan lawsuits to change them,” she said in the statement. “This lawsuit should be seen for exactly what it is: A partisan attempt to change the rules in the middle of an election for a nakedly partisan outcome.”

Timothy Batten is no one’s idea of a staunch voting rights advocate. I criticized his decision in 2013 in Lowery v. Deal, which dealt with the dilution of minority voting power in Fulton County’s newly incorporated cities. And the judge had rejected a claim that new Secretary of State Brian Kemp intentionally purged Georgia’s voter rolls ahead of the 2016 election. His decision reflected a very clear reading of a statute that requires voters be able to register up until 30 days prior to an election, whether runoff or primary. But it shouldn’t be surprising that Handel views higher turnout as risky to her chances.

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Annual Self-Promotion

As I return from the holidays, I’ve noticed two stories in the news that I just happen to have written about in the past year.

The first of these comes from Flint, Michigan. I’ll refer you to Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress for the definitive history of that community and the connections between housing, schools, industry, and institutional racism that have created much of the city’s current state of crisis, which today manifests in the form of acute lead poisoning from the city’s water supply. This poisoning is a direct result of decisions made by appointed emergency managers to draw the city’s drinking water from the Flint River in order to realize a cost savings by withdrawing from a service contract with Detroit’s water utility. Corrosive industrial wastes in the river water have caused lead from antiquated pipes to leach into the water supply, resulting in drastically elevated blood lead levels, particularly in the city’s children.

This is bad enough in itself. But what’s worse is the rapidly mounting evidence that a series of emergency managers and Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed them, ignored both qualitative complaints by residents of bad taste, foul odor, and rashes caused by contact with the water, and quantitative measurements of lead contamination. If statements made by high-ranking Michigan officials are true, the prioritization of cost-savings over public health are reckless indeed.

Jim Lynch of the Detroit News reports:

Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, was quoted in a July 22 Department of Health and Human Services email expressing concern about the handling of the water crisis, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards through open records requests.

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Muchmore wrote in an email exchange. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

Despite such concern at the highest levels of Michigan government, lower-level officials continued to downplay the severity of Flint’s drinking water problems for almost three more months. It would take until mid-October for DEQ’s top official to admit mistakes were made and for Flint to be switched back to a different water source.

….

In August, evidence would begin to surface of rising levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. It wasn’t until October that Snyder’s administration moved to switch the industrial city’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron from the corrosive Flint River.

 

I wrote about the anti-democratic nature of emergency management in an article published by American Studies last spring. I didn’t focus on Flint, but did note the ways that state legislatures have advanced austerity and the hollowing of the public sphere in direct conflict with urban democracy. In Flint, the stakes are as high as life and death.

The second story of note is the re-introduction of legislation in Georgia, as House Resolution 964, to amend the state’s constitution to allow Atlanta’s northern suburbs to separate from Fulton County and form Milton County, breaking away from the poorer and majority-Black city and South Fulton. Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek has written his proposal to limit the amendment to allowing the re-creation of a formerly existing county, which would allow north Fulton to separate without enabling a rush of secession movements in other counties (Milton County merged with Fulton County in 1931 while facing financial ruin). The proposal contains some wiggle room in that it requires only “generally similar” boundaries, which would allow parts of Sandy Springs below the Chattahoochee River to also secede, so it’s clear that this reverence for the old Milton County, which was impoverished and rural rather than today’s gilded exurb, is simply a matter of political convenience.

Similar legislation has been a perennial symbolic gesture that has failed to gain sufficient support, but north Fulton legislators who keep introducing it are tapping into deep discontent from their affluent constituents. I’ve argued (in the Journal of Urban Affairs) that this discontent is rooted in systemic racism in the region, and laid out (in the Journal of Urban History) the ways that a 1991 tax revolt crystallized white suburban anger at Black political leadership as a perennial source of discontent.

It should be noted, as Arielle Kass at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, that Raffensperger also pre-filed legislation to double Fulton County’s property tax homestead exemption, which would drastically reduce county revenues. This is, of course, of a piece with a broader conservative north Fulton political agenda: delegitimize Fulton County government, limit its scope with fiscal restrictions, and foment political polarization while privatizing services in the northern half of the county. If secession fails, then the rest of the agenda–insulating the property of north Fulton residents from decisions made by Atlanta and south Fulton voters–remains intact.

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?”

“Unspoken” By Whom?

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects on the fact that virtually all–45 of 46–of the elected officials in recently incorporated metro Atlanta cities are white. Reporters Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy tiptoe around the racial unbalance of the new cities, affluent and white-majority portions of counties where whites are not a majority. They note that the disproportionate whiteness of local government is causing some people to wonder if race was a motivating factor, while giving equal time to officials of the new cities and advocates for incorporating more white-majority cities who claim a color-blind racial innocence.

What’s more galling, however, than this brand of wishy-washy balance, is the way that Torpy and Edwards construe the controversy as new:

But one impact of new cities in metro Atlanta has gone largely unspoken: all have led to elected governments that are almost entirely white in counties where whites are no longer a majority.

The problem with the “largely unspoken” claim is that it’s utter and complete bull. Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus opposed the incorporation of Sandy Springs for years, charging that the incorporation was an effort to create a white-controlled city and to protect the affluent area from annexation by Atlanta’s black-majority government. The incorporation only passed in 2005 after the Republican takeover of both houses of the General Assembly. After the affluent and white-majority cities of Milton, Johns Creek, and Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County incorporated, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Reverend Joseph Lowery sued under the Voting Rights Act to demand that the cities be legally dissolved precisely on the grounds that the new cities would make it impossible for minority residents of those cities to have effective political representation.

The suit, Lowery v. Deal, was dismissed by the district court and an appeal failed to win in the Circuit Court. I’ve written about the suit here, and will have an article published at some point in the future in the Journal of Urban Affairs dealing with the racial dynamics of local government in Fulton County. I won’t spoil the plot, but I argue that white suburbanites have, just as much as they resisted residential integration out of fear of having black neighbors on their block, resisted political community with African Americans because of stereotypical understandings of black-led government as profligate, corrupt, and accountable exclusively to black interests. This form of racial antipathy, which focused on the presence of black people in city hall, undergirded resistance to annexation of Sandy Springs by Atlanta in 1966 and a three-decade movement to incorporate the area. Today it undergirds efforts to reduce the scope and power of Fulton County government and to separate north Fulton in a new Milton County. Color-blind rhetoric about efficiency and responsiveness of local government are intelligible to voters in the context of this racialized set of assumptions about black-led governments. So my argument is that the whiteness of local government in these cities is, if not the whole point of incorporation, a major motivating factor. It’s unfortunate that the AJC gives equal time to disingenuous denials of this political reality. 

But it’s more disappointing that the AJC fails to acknowledge its own complicity in making the charge of racial exclusion “unspoken”. The paper offered no substantive coverage of the claims made in Lowery while the suit was pending. If the arguments of the most influential group of black elected officials in the state, along with one of the most influential leaders of the ongoing movement for black freedom and civil rights, have been ignored by a major metropolitan paper, it is a clear indication that arguments on race made by nonwhites are not unspoken so much as unheard.

In Case You Heard Differently, Property Taxes Have Often Helped White People in Atlanta Stay Richer

In my research for an upcoming talk on the 1990s tax revolt in north Fulton County, I’ve had a revelation of sorts about one way in which white privilege is institutionalized and perpetuated (to be clear, this is a personal revelation, not a thought unprecedented in the annals of urban political economy). Ironically, this mechanism, the ad valorem tax on real estate, has been a principal boogeyman in the reactionary politics of privatism, public retrenchment and racial resentments of what George Lipsitz and Barbara Tomlinson describe as

a small cadre of affluent individuals—who comprise what surely must be the most sullen, surly, self-pitying, and sadistic group of “haves” in the history of the world.[1]

How can this be? Aren’t taxes the instrument by which the poor, minorities, liberals, and other members of the 47%  steal from upstanding taxpayers? Let’s do some quick history, drawing first on a Research Atlanta report by David Sjoquist and Drew Warwick [2], whose analysis is the basis for my summary of events below, to frame the conditions of the tax revolt.

In 1989 Fulton County’s tax digest (its list of every assessed property and its assessed taxes) was rejected by the Georgia Revenue Commissioner, who found that the county was

1. Violating state law because its overall tax digest fell nearly 10 percentage points short of the statutory requirement for property to be assessed at 40 percent of fair market value.

2. Assessing property at wildly uneven rates; a few properties were assessed above 40 percent of fair market value, most were assessed less, and some, mostly high-value residences, were assessed at much less than 40 percent.

These determinations were made through a sales ratio study conducted by the state Department of Audits on the order of the Revenue Commissioner. A sales ratio study compares the ratio of tax assessments to the sale price of properties sold in the jurisdiction that year to determine if assessments were in line with market value.

Atlanta and Fulton County’s flunking of this audit precipitated a fateful series of events. Atlanta and Fulton County, and their Joint Board of Tax Assessors, hired the firm of Cole, Layer and Trumble to perform a mass reappraisal of all Fulton County properties (more than 230,000!) based on a comprehensive sales ratio study. Fulton County was forced to acknowledge that it had been breaking state law by underassessing property. New legislation passed in 1988 also forced the two governments and their joint tax board to take swift and decisive action, or face stiff fines from the state. Atlanta and Fulton elected to bite the bullet and impose the assessment hikes all at once, rather than ratcheting up assessments gradually. The results were dramatic; virtually no property owners were spared an upward reassessment, but the most dramatic assessment hikes affected the owners of more valuable properties. It wasn’t unusual for residents of affluent neighborhoods to see their assessments double.

One might think that, since a sales ratio study makes the “free market” the yardstick by which tax assessments are evaluated, political opposition would be minimized, and the right-leaning homeowners who are prone to protest their tax bills would be placated. After all, it wasn’t some county bureaucrat arbitrarily making assessments, but the aggregated wisdom of the “free market”–the same force that was helping them to grow equity.  As Sjoquist and Warwick put it,

Despite the shock that residents face in dealing with the new assessments, the new state procedures should result in more equitable assessments.[2]

Since you’re reading and I’m writing this, you might correctly surmise that many taxpayers focused more on the “tax hike” aspect of the reassessment than on the “bringing assessments into compliance with the law” aspect–let alone any consideration of “paying one’s fair share.” In fact, the reassessments prompted the formation of taxpayers’ rights organizations, and launched the careers of many north Fulton Republicans who capitalized on the convergence of spiking tax bills and the prevailing sentiment that the region’s affluent were being soaked to support welfare recipients. The two most notable of these were Robert Proctor and Mitch Skandalakis, who were joint counsel in a taxpayers’ organization lawsuit against Atlanta, Fulton County, the Joint Board of Tax Assessors, and Cole-Layer-Trumble over the reassessment [3], and who used their new identities as tax warriors as a springboard to further political endeavors. In Skandalakis’s case, this involved a successful run for Chair of the Fulton County Commission and an unsuccessful 1998 run for Lieutenant Governor marred by extensive race-baiting of black Atlanta-area Democratic officials in his Ralph Reed-managed campaign. Proctor continued to sue virtually every government agency in Fulton County over taxes and, significantly, affirmative action, along with representing a Waffle House franchisee accused of discrimination against black customers in a briefly notorious lawsuit. (Ironically, after Skandalakis led a campaign to install a new county tax chief, Proctor served as legal counsel for a realty trust that specialized in buying tax liens at discount from the county and seizing the properties).

Proctor (as a civilian gadfly) and Skandalakis (in county government) were among the leaders of a movement that consolidated taxpayer resentment, white racial grudges about black political power, and a rising base of Republican party strength in Atlanta’s northern suburbs into a force that  transformed the state and has brought political conflict on the congruent axes of race, party, and geography to a head in Fulton County.

The most ironic part of this is that, far from soaking rich northsiders, the property tax system in Fulton County had been actively subsidizing them for decades. The pattern that the CLT study found in 1989 was the same one discovered by an Atlanta Urban League study of tax assessments in 1971, at the height of white flight.[4] A study by Research Atlanta, Inc. in 1975 referenced the Urban League’s study and a similar national investigation carried out by HUD [5], and rather delicately explained how race meshed with the “failure of assessment to keep pace with the rapidly changing property values in the county”:

The geographical distribution of neighborhood assessment-sales ratios mentioned above generally follows the trend of upward and downward transitional property values. Thus, houses in the city’s northern neighborhoods, where property values have been rising, had lower than average assessment-sales ratios. On the other hand, inner city neighborhoods, where property values have either declined or not risen as rapidly as the rest of the city, had higher ratios.[6]

Research Atlanta emphasized that the divergence was an effect of assessments lagging behind changes in the market–assessors devoting limited human resources to assessing newly developed property, for example–rather than deliberate attempts by assessors to favor any racial or ethnic group or any neighborhood area. I would not rule out the possibility that pro-development officials on the Fulton County Commission placed some thumbs on the scales so that rapidly booming northside and north Fulton areas would continue to grow without higher tax assessments, but this kind of malfeasance isn’t necessary to support an argument that tax assessments were racially biased against black Atlantans; the kind of property value instability happening in this era–both in terms of property that fell in value and that rose rapidly–was intrinsically tied to the racial identity of owners and neighbors. Further, if properties were reassessed at long or irregular intervals, that meshed with racial bias in the housing market to structure the tax system in whites’ favor.

In an era when (as David Freund ably argues) white suburbanites crafted a political identity around property ownership and a political agenda of racial exclusion justified by the need to protect property values, those homeowners scored a second windfall when tax assessors, whether through sloth, understaffing, or collusion with development interests, allowed tax bills to lag far behind that rising property value. So, while north Fulton tax revolt leaders like attorney Robert Proctor mounted soapboxes to lament the waste of their tax dollars after reassessment, they were utterly silent about the decades-long diversion of taxes whose collection was mandated by state law from the region’s schools and governments. They certainly didn’t thank any of the residents of low-value neighborhoods, whose relatively high assessments represented both a disproportionate share of the costs of government and public services and an effective subsidy to the underassessed rich.

Put it another way: Every dime of difference between the state-mandated assessment of 40 percent of market value and the actual assessment imposed on homeowners was a theft from the public at large.

Notes:

[1]: Tomlinson, Barbara, and George Lipsitz. “American Studies as Accompaniment.” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 1–30. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0009.

[2]: Sjoquist, Keith R., and Drew A. Warwick. Fulton County’s Mass Reappraisal: Why Was It Necessary? Atlanta, GA: Research Atlanta, Inc., 1993.

[3]: These suits were ultimately decided in favor of the governments. See Lomax v. Lee, 408 SE 2d 788 (GA Supreme Court, 1991).

[4]: Report of the Atlanta Urban League on the Fulton County Property Tax, 1971, cited in [6].

[5]: Arthur D. Little, Inc, and United States. A Study of Property Taxes and Urban Blight; Report to U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1973.

[6]: Holmes, Donald E., and Robert W. Pinner. Assessment-sales Ratios in Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. Atlanta: Research Atlanta, 1975.

Sine Die for the Georgia General Assembly (updated)

Sine Die is not a rare but catastrophic outcome of trigonometry exam-induced stress (rimshot!) but the end of the General Assembly’s regular session at the Capitol in Atlanta. Barring any urgent business requiring a special session, this particular laboratory of democracy is just about done experimenting until next year.

Although the contemplation of a water war with Tennessee over where the state line crosses the Tennessee River has generated the most attention, far more immediately consequential bills revolve around the collection of taxes in Fulton County. HB 541 proposes doubling the Fulton County Homestead exemption to $60,000, while HB 346 would make the Fulton County Tax Commissioner an appointed official.

note: read here a point-counterpoint between north Fulton Republican and Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House Jan Jones and Democratic Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves on the impact of the homestead exemption….

update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the homestead exemption bill’s supporters on Tuesday had largely given up hope of the bill reaching a Senate vote before the end of the session. It’s on the list of pending bills, but not likely to see a vote. that passage now seems likely (after who knows what horse-trading).

These bills join others passed last week that redistrict the Fulton County Commission to create a new Republican seat and give the Fulton County legislative delegation power to choose the head of the County elections board. These bills were sponsored by area Republicans and passed to the floor through a gerrymandered Fulton County delegation that tilts Republican despite the facts that Fulton County is a majority-minority county that voted by nearly two thirds for Barack Obama and five of seven County Commissioners are on record as opposing the slate of local legislation advanced by the Fulton County delegation.

This is an effort by a local minority to appeal to a higher level of government to win its agenda. Jim Galloway explains:

Finally, there was H.B. 347, a bill aimed at the Registration and Elections Board, which came under scrutiny last year when mismanagement caused more Fulton voters to use paper ballots than the rest of the state combined. The fix: allow Fulton’s state legislators, rather than the County Commission, to pick the board’s chairman. That would likely make the board 3-2 Republican rather than 3-2 Democratic.

All this would all happen in an overwhelmingly Democratic county that is 60 percent non-white.

When this involves invoking the Federal Voting Rights Act to protect racial minority interests, it’s an intolerable intrusion on liberty. When it involves a state majority engineering a potential partisan advantage in the administration of elections to boost a partisan minority’s chances, it’s democracy in action.

There’s no doubt that the redrawing of legislative boundaries in 2011 was done to pack the Fulton County legislative delegation with white Republicans (but I repeat myself) from the Atlanta suburbs (but I repeat repeating myself) by creating districts that include small parts of Fulton County and larger parts of outlying (and more conservative) counties. I wrote about this issue without specifying the extent of this districting technique. Johnny Edwards and David Wickert explain:

Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.

Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.

As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.

State Senator Vincent Fort thinks, as this blog does, that this delegation-packing represents an effort to diminish the authority that local black elected officials can wield over white residents through county government:

“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”

State Senator Mike Crane, who lives 20 miles from the Fulton County line in Coweta and received 835 votes in his recent unopposed bid for reelection from Fulton County voters (out of more than 60,000 total votes), disagrees, and insists that

Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.

“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”

This blog suspects that increasing the representation of people with two particular qualities–whiteness and Republicanism–were foremost in the minds of the architects of the redistricting. Over the course of this legislative session, those qualities have certainly proven to support a radical redirection of state policy affecting the county.

I also wrote some weeks ago that legislative delegations fall between the cracks of voting rights law. The courts have generally interpreted county legislative delegations as administrative units of the legislatures, meaning that if the districting and apportionment of the whole legislature pass muster under the VRA, then legislatures are largely free to determine the composition of legislative delegations. It doesn’t matter if all of the seats in a delegation lie within the county or not, how much of a county is contained in a seat that is part of the district, if the members of a county’s legislative delegation actually live in the county or not. Most importantly, while the Voting Rights Act protects the ability of minority group voters to elect representatives and guards against vote dilution, legislatures remain free to dilute the power of legislators within local delegations without running afoul of the VRA, on the assumption that these delegations remain subordinate to the legislature as a whole.

State Senator Jason Carter recognizes, in terms that echo this blog’s analysis, that the gerrymandering of the legislative delegation is part of a plan to bypass the Democratic majority in Fulton County, bring local legislation to the floor where the statewide GOP majority aligns with the GOP minority in north Fulton County, and ultimately to give that Republican minority the power to control elections in Fulton County:

“The next thing you do is pack a Fulton delegation with people from outside Fulton County…Then you give power to that gerrymandered delegation over the elections commission. At some point, someone’s going to say you’ve gone too far.

As Jim Galloway explains, this legal doctrine prevented Georgia Democrats from pursuing a suit under the Voting Rights Act to challenge the composition of the delegation. In this the Assembly may have crossed a line that would open the composition of the Fulton County delegation to scrutiny:

When legislative districts were presented to the U.S. Justice Department for approval – as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Democrats declined to protest the GOP delegation packing.

By law, legislative delegations are only advisory bodies, it was determined. They had no real power.

But H.B. 347 changes that. With the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal, the Fulton legislative delegation will be given real, statutory authority over the county’s election committee. Republicans, Carter explained afterwards, may have just provided Democrats the leg they need to stand on in front of a federal judge and mount a challenge to GOP delegation packing.

We’ll see.

Voting Rights and Legislative “Delegation Gerrymanders”

In the recent history of metro Atlanta, control of the Fulton County delegation in the Georgia General Assembly has been a huge political prize. In Georgia, as in many states (and particularly those in the South where the County has long been the most important unit of local government), the legislative delegations from each county exercise significant control over legislation affecting local governments. Whether by the rules of the legislature or by custom, “local courtesy” practices in many states mean that a small number of legislators have the power to block legislation from reaching the full legislature, and if legislation attains either unanimous or supermajority approval from members of a county’s delegation, members of the full legislature are expected to defer and approve it.

As I’ve written before, when Democrats (and particularly African American Democrats) held a majority on the Fulton County delegation, they were able for more than two decades to thwart efforts of north Fulton suburban politicians to enact measures (like incorporating cities) that furthered an agenda of suburban separatism. Since Republicans have taken over both legislative houses in 2004, this state of affairs was nearly certain to change, and Republican-led reapportionment and redistricting of both houses of the legislature produced GOP majorities among the Fulton delegations in both houses, even though Fulton County gave nearly two-thirds of its votes to Barack Obama in 2012. Republicans accomplished this unlikely goal by creating districts that crossed the boundaries of Fulton and adjacent suburban counties, making more politicians from white, Republican, and affluent areas members of the Fulton delegation.

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