The Vote Fraud Fraud

There’s not much “history” in this post aside from the history of vote suppression via nominally color-blind means that disenfranchised Black Americans from the end of Reconstruction to the present, with a brief respite during the years between the Voting Rights Act and Shelby County (J. Morgan Kousser’s got that covered). As Greg Palast makes clear in an extensively researched and outrage-inducing report for Al-Jazeera America, the use of the proprietary Interstate Crosscheck program, a creation of Kansas Tea Party Secretary of State Kris Kobach, may become the cornerstone of a multi-state purge of voters whose only offense is having a name similar to someone else living across state lines. Kobach’s track record of vote suppression has been well documented, along with his hostility toward minority voters and his willingness to to to extravagant lengths to prevent the largely non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud. That combating this pseudoproblem carries the inevitable consequence of disenfranchising many times more legitimate voters is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

Palast’s report ought to generate outrage. The system purports to identify voters suspected of maintaining registration and voting in multiple states. There is no evidence that this happens frequently enough to have the slightest impact on an election, but, of course, that isn’t the point. Crosscheck has a systematic bias against minority group members because the system keys on voting list matches across state lines where a voter in one state in a given year has a first and last name in common with a voter in another state. Minority group members in the United States have significantly less diversity in family names, either because their enslaved ancestors were assigned the names of their masters, or because their ancestry is from a place where a small number of family names are common.

Mark Swedlund is a specialist in list analytics whose clients have included eBay, AT&T and Nike. At Al Jazeera America’s request, he conducted a statistical review of Crosscheck’s three lists of suspected double voters.

According to Swedlund, “It appears that Crosscheck does have inherent bias to over-selecting for potential scrutiny and purging voters from Asian, Hispanic and Black ethnic groups. In fact, the matching methodology, which presumes people in other states with the same name are matches, will always over-select from groups of people with common surnames.” Swedlund sums up the method for finding two-state voters — simply matching first and last name — as “ludicrous, just crazy.”

It also shows that the system as used to detect possible two-state voters ignores safeguards to prevent false matches:

But the actual lists show that not only are middle names commonly mismatched and suffix discrepancies ignored, even birthdates don’t seem to have been taken into account. Moreover, Crosscheck deliberately ignores Social Security mismatches, in the few instances when the numbers are even collected. The Crosscheck instructions for county election officers state, “Social Security numbers are included for verification; the numbers might or might not match.”

In practice, all it takes to become a suspect is sharing a first and last name with a voter in another state. Typical “matches” identifying those who may have voted in both Georgia and Virginia include:

  • Kevin Antonio Hayes of Durham, North Carolina, is a match for a man who voted in Alexandria, Virginia, as Kevin Thomas Hayes.
  • John Paul Williams of Alexandria is supposedly the same man as John R. Williams of Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Robert Dewey Cox of Marietta, Georgia is matched with Robert Glen Cox of Springfield, Virginia.

The use of Crosscheck will probably have its most profound effects in statewide races for Governor and U.S. Senator. Congressional districts are sufficiently gerrymandered that the insurance provided by suppressing potentially unfriendly voters is probably not needed, while turnout in metro areas and rural areas where minorities live in large numbers can determine whether conservative-leaning and largely white voters carry an election.

But its effects on local politics and metropolitics at the county level shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve written before about the way that voting rights are tied to metropolitics in Fulton County, and particularly the way that controlling the composition of the electorate is key to the balance of power between north Fulton on the Republican side and Democratic Atlanta and south Fulton. It’s not a coincidence, in my view, that metro Atlanta has been a breeding ground for vote suppression tactics, since the Republican Party has had a strong stake in limiting the voting power of Black Atlantans to win control of the county and state governments. One former chair of the Fulton County Republican Party, Hans von Spakovsky, influenced Georgia’s pioneering voter ID legislation, and, as a member of George W. Bush’s Justice Department sought to shift enforcement priorities to voting in ways that career Justice lawyers found objectionable. Today he’s ensconced at the Heritage Foundation where he has been riding two hobby horses: Eric Holder is a thug politicizing the Justice Department and the Democrats are conspiring to steal elections (I have the Google News Alert set up so you don’t have to. You’re welcome). As Jane Mayer ably notes, he’s Kris Kobach’s godfather in vote suppression.

And today, Atlanta metropolitics are lurking in the background of the battle over voter fraud (excuse me, “voter fraud”). State Representative Stacy Abrams, the House Minority Leader and the founder of New Georgia Project, has just lost a case in Fulton County Superior Court over Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s evident refusal to process 40,000 voter registration applications collected by the group. But Abrams is also concerned about the fact that Kemp has enthusiastically added Georgia to the list of states using Crosscheck to monitor, and potentially purge, their voting rolls.

It’s biased, I think, both in form and intent,” says Rep. Stacey Abrams, leader of the Democrats in the Georgia state legislature. “But more concerning to me is the fact this is being done stealthfully. … We have never had this information presented to us.”

Abrams is especially concerned that the Crosscheck list was crafted by GOP official Kobach. “I believe that Kris Kobach has demonstrated a very aggressive animus towards people of color … in voter registration,” she says. Abrams is now threatening legislative and legal action against Kemp.

In the meantime, local Republican officials are hewing closely to the party line:

Though Kobach declined to be interviewed, Roger Bonds, the chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia’s Fulton County, responds, “This is how we have successfully prevented voter fraud.”

Indeed. Here’s Brian Kemp, the official in charge of voter registration and vote counting in Georgia, where Democrats are in range of knocking off an incumbent Republican governor and claiming an open U.S. Senate seat.

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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?”

Representation and Apportionment in Metropolitan America

The case of Lepak v. City of Irving(TX) will be considered for a hearing before the Supreme Court in its next term. This case, brought by the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative legal foundation responsible for Shelby County v. Holder (challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) and Fisher v. University of Texas (challenging race-aware admissions measures in public universities), would seek to change the standard of apportionment from one based on district population to one based on the numbers of voters in a district.

It’s not hard to grasp the significance, as Adam Liptak writes in the NYT: 

Were the challengers in the new case to succeed, the practical consequences would be enormous, Joseph R. Fishkin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin wrote last year in The Yale Law Journal.

It would, he said, “shift power markedly at every level, away from cities and neighborhoods with many immigrants and many children and toward the older, whiter, more exclusively native-born areas in which a higher proportion of the total population consists of eligible voters.”

In Irving, Texas, switching to a standard based on the number of voters would combine neighborhoods where Latino immigrants live with areas dominated by older white Anglos. In metro areas like Atlanta, it would further shift power in state legislatures toward suburbs. This case thus presents a recurrent problem: determining the relevant universe of people for apportionment is inherently political. The Project on Fair Representation would like to make this a discussion about formal principles rather than one about real-world power.

Voting Rights Challenge to Metro Atlanta Municipal Incorporations Dismissed (and the right wing notices!)

A three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal on February 4. This decision was not unexpected, but skirts many questions about the suit, the historical context of racial (and “post-racial”) conflict under which the cities in question incorporated, the ethics of allowing residents of a small privileged locality to decide unilaterally to incorporate without regard to the effects on the metro area as a whole, and the proper interpretation of vote dilution in a metropolitan context. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Big News for the Fulton County Commission

I’ve been offline with respect to this blog for a while, completing an article on the historical relationship of color-blind racial ideology and political geography in metro Atlanta, arguing that the contemporary movement for secession in north Fulton County is part of a long series of maneuvers to manipulate political geography to favor the interests of north Fulton residents and limit the ability of African American voters and officials in the rest of the county to influence them.

One of the things I like about the kind of history I practice is that it tends to blur the distinction between past and present as objects of inquiry. It’s exciting when the history you write is still unfolding. A major event in that unfolding just happened in a recent state legislative hearing in Atlanta, with the introduction of HB 171, a bill sponsored by six north Fulton County Republicans to redistrict and reapportion the Fulton County Commission. The commission, as Bill Pendered reports in the Saporta Report (invaluable for coverage of metro Atlanta and the General Assembly), now has two at-large seats (including the chair) and five district seats. One seat lies entirely in the city of Atlanta, while two cover south Fulton County, one covers the Buckhead area in north Atlanta and parts of north Fulton, and the fifth covers far north Fulton County. The new districting would eliminate the second at-large district, extend the Buckhead district south to Midtown, and divide North Fulton among two Commission districts.

Fulton-ccp1-2013

Courtesy GA Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office, 2013

There are some legitimate reasons for eliminating the second at-large seat; creating a sixth district would make all of the districts somewhat smaller and, in principle, more responsive. It would also eliminate an at-large seat could be considered redundant, since the commission chair currently answers to all of the voters. In the abstract, redistricting Fulton County is a fine idea.

The problem, of course, as J. Morgan Kousser ably demonstrates in a legal history of voting rights and racially-driven redistricting, lies in the fact that districts are drawn not to serve abstract principles but real-world political interests. This graphic of the current commission district, which includes the headshots of the current commissioners, might offer a bit of perspective:

ComMapAnimate_7

Map and Portraits from Fulton County Commission

If the concern were for making the commissioners more responsive and accountable, why stop at eliminating only the at-large District 2? Why not make all seven seats district-based and have the members elect a chair? The answer of course is political advantage. In effect, the bill trades a seat elected by a majority-minority county (now held by Democrat Robb Pitts) for a district election with white supermajority in the electorate. Since the geography of all of the Commission districts would change, there is no single “new district” being created. But the percentages of African Americans of voting age in each of the three proposed northern districts ranges from 10.7 to 15.4%, while the percentage of Hispanics of voting age in each ranges from 7.9 to 10.2%. The proposed district with the largest share of minorities of voting age would be the new District 2, covering Roswell and  Milton and parts of Alpharetta. While a quarter of this district’s voting age population would be a member of these two minority groups, minorities would be well overmatched by a solidly Republican white electorate. And, while the new District 3 would essentially extend the current District 4 southward, it would do so as Pendered notes, only to “10th Street. Tenth Street is at, or near, the historic – and often unremarked in public – dividing line between the county’s black and white communities.”

To put this in a context of electoral math, 71% of the voting power on the Commission, and 60% of the district-based vote, is currently held by black Democrats. Fulton County gave about 67% of its vote to Barack Obama in the 2012 election. In other words, the current commission apportionment, even with two at-large seats, only moderately inflates the power of voters who favored a black moderate Democrat in a presidential election over a corporate Republican with an arch-conservative running mate. It’s a very rough proxy for local voting preferences, but I think it works OK for quick-and-dirty analytical purposes (and, at risk of making a racially reductive argument, see illustration 2 above).

The redistricting plan, however, would split the district-based votes 50-50, and ensure that north Fulton Republicans would control no less than 42% of the overall commission votes–and 57% if they could win the chair. If we use countywide Romney-voting as our yardstick, north Fulton Republicans win under the new deal even if they lose. And, although it would be difficult for white north Fulton Republicans to win a countywide race for commission chair, it wouldn’t be impossible. A Republican has chaired the commission as recently as Karen Handel’s tenure (which ended in 2007, shortly before an unsuccessful primary run for governor and a now-infamous tenure with the Susan G. Komen Foundation), and with three absolutely secure seats in Buckhead and north Fulton, the party would be able to concentrate its funding on one must-win countywide race, rather than two.

It’s not a coincidence that HB 347, another bill being sponsored by virtually the same group of north Fulton House Republicans, seeks to reorganize the Fulton County Board of Elections. Whereas the County Commission now appoints the election commissioners, under proposed legislation, the Fulton County delegation of the legislature would appoint two Democrats, two Republicans, and a commission chair chosen by the House and Senate members of the Fulton County legislative delegation. North Fulton party activists like Hans von Spakovsky, who chaired the Fulton GOP in the 1990s before working for the George W. Bush Justice Department, were instrumental in devising vote-suppression strategies like voter ID laws and stoking fears of widespread vote fraud to justify tightening access to the ballot. Given the demographic balance of Fulton County, it’s difficult to imagine that Republican electoral strategies would not involve significant efforts to shrink the electorate.

These legislative proposals, if successful, would constitute a strong Republican play for power in Fulton County, and one to which observers of urban and metropolitan affairs in the rest of the country should pay attention. They signal another instance in a changing relationship between local governments and the states. While policy historians have devoted valuable attention to the relationship between city hall and Washington, D.C. during the relatively brief heyday of liberal social policy, the consequences of federal retreat from urban policy have more recently come into focus. When it comes to taxation, social services, political representation, transportation, schooling, and any number of other significant metropolitan policy issues, the state houses, and partisan politics at the state level, are becoming more and more consequential.

In Georgia and elsewhere, efforts to undercut the power of urban centers and black voters living in them is old news. The state’s County Unit System prevailed until the 1960s, promoting a “rule of the rustics” in which tiny rural communities routinely undercut state support for infrastructure in Atlanta, hamstrung efforts to secure home rule for the city, and gerrymandered legislative districts to keep black candidates out of state and federal office. Yet, this situation is something quite different–the use of state power as a tool in an intrametropolitan conflict. Unlike the era of rustic rule, this redistricting attack on black Democratic political strength originates within Fulton County’s own legislative delegation. The state House and Senate members who represent Fulton County constituents are supporting a plan that runs contrary to the apparent political preferences of a healthy majority of the county’s voters.

Understanding why this has happened requires a bit of discussion about how it has happened. Some aspects of this situation are unique to Georgia. The era of rustic rule in Georgia valorized the county boss and demonized urban governments. State legislatures in Georgia were thus historically stingy about granting home rule power to the cities; preserving control for the rural-dominated General Assembly over Atlanta’s affairs was a check on racial moderation and other forms of urban degeneracy real and imagined. The consequence of this tight grasp of power was that the legislature was potentially overburdened with consideration of any and all changes to local laws and policies. The compromise that emerged was the “local courtesy” system, in which legislation pertaining to local affairs is largely handled by the delegation of the affected county, which is effectively a gatekeeper to the whole Assembly. Georgia has 159 counties, by far the largest in proportion to state population in the nation. Insofar as most of the counties remain small, rural, and homogenous, the system works reasonably well. But it breaks down miserably for heavily urbanized, diverse, and internally differentiated counties like Fulton. In these settings, and particularly in the Atlanta metro area where suburban settlement spans several counties, control of a legislative delegation is a matter of immense importance and potentially of intense conflict.

After the dismantlement of the County Unit System in 1966 led to reapportionment of the legislature, significant numbers of black Democrats joined the larger Fulton County delegation, and were, until 2005, successful in stopping efforts to incorporate cities in the north Fulton areas of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton, which were major goals of north Fulton residents (mostly Republicans) who had come to resent the use of their taxes to fund both public works and social services in the rest of the county. The Fulton delegation was also successful in preventing any consideration of legislation to amend the state constitution to allow north Fulton to secede (the number of 159 counties is a constitutional provision).

As north Fulton’s affluence made it a key territory for the state Republican Party, and the priorities of north Fulton Republicans increasingly revolved around secession, it was inevitable that the growing supermajority of Republicans would seek to remove the local courtesy roadblock by the tried and true method of gerrymanderingredistricting the northern Atlanta suburbs so that more seats crossed Fulton County’s borders with Cobb, Cherokee, Gwinnett, or Forsyth–all prime territory for suburban Republicanism. Thus, the 2013 legislative session opened with a Fulton delegation tilted by 13-12 toward the GOP in the House, 7-4 in the Senate, and Lynne Riley, an active member of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, newly elected as its chair.

Redistricting the Fulton County Commission is an example of the kind of change that would typically require preclearance from the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because Fulton County is a “covered jurisdiction”; the county’s history of racial vote suppression subjects it to federal review of any changes in its voting procedures, and it would not require a particularly loose interpretation of the VRA to attribute this redistricting to an effort to diminish minority power. It so happens that current Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is a cosigner for Shelby County v. Holder, a suit pending before the United States Supreme Court that would invalidate Section 5 and free previously covered jurisdictions to change their voting procedures at will, with the burden falling on minority voters to prove an adverse effect on their voting rights after the fact. Before becoming the AG, Olens was the chair of the county commission in Cobb County, the catchbasin for tens of thousands of whites who fled Atlanta as the city desegregated in the 1960s and 1970s. Olens is thus firmly within the orbit of suburban Georgia Republicans for whom districting and voting are particularly salient.

So, the dominoes appear to be lining up for a series of interlinked efforts at protecting white north Fulton voters’ power. First, redistrict to create a virtually un-losable seat for another Republican on the Fulton County Commission. Then, wait for the Roberts Court to invalidate Section 5 of the VRA so that the new districting can take effect. Third, stack the Fulton County Election Commission with operatives committed to tightening minority access to the ballot, and, ultimately, bet the house on that one key race for Commission chair. Some of these dominoes seem pretty likely to fall (including, unfortunately, the demise of Section 5 at the hands of the Supremes), and others more farfetched (actually winning that commission chair election). And, from the point of view of north Fulton residents, encouraging a racially polarized campaign for the commission chair entails substantial risk. It could spark a backlash at the ballot box in the form of high turnout from south Fulton, and could result in the election of a commission chair with political debts to south Fulton (and grudges against north Fulton). Wouldn’t this reproduce the sort of polarized and dysfunctional government, dominated by the south and oppressive toward the north, that the north Fulton cohort have been bemoaning all along?

I think that’s the entire point.

Lynne Riley, the current chair of the Fulton County legislative delegation, is a north Fulton Republican who served as a County Commissioner from 2004 to 2010. As a protege of Karen Handel, she was committed to shrinking the scope of Fulton County government. And, at the same time as she was serving as a Fulton County Commissioner, Riley served as a member of the Milton County Legislative Advisory Commission convened in 2007 by state House members Jan Jones and Mark Burkhalter to advance the cause of county secession. It strains credulity to imagine that this effort is a good faith effort to fix county government. The proposal is virtually guaranteed to worsen polarization on the commission, and its chief sponsor was working to dismantle the county even as she was cashing a paycheck as one of its commissioners. Rather, it seems that north Fulton Republicans are making a short play to control the county and hedging with a longer game: if it doesn’t work out, it will only prove that the county is irredeemable, and that north Fulton demands for secession are justified.

After all, Riley’s Fulton delegation is also floating HR 275, another attempt to amend the state constitution to allow the secession of north Fulton, which doesn’t suggest a strong commitment to the success of county reorganization. If reforming Fulton County government fails on the terms that most of the public would recognize, i doubt most north Fulton Republicans would mind.

Let me say this again: when it comes to redistricting Fulton County as an ostensible good government measure, FAILURE, NOT SUCCESS, IS THE GOAL. 

And if my account sounds conspiratorial, you could take House Speaker Pro Tem (and another co-sponsor of both HB 171 and HR 275) Jan Jones’s word for it:

“My goal is not to re-create Milton County. My goal is to end Fulton County and bring government closer to the people,” she said. “But it will take convincing.”

The great thing about redistricting is that it can dramatically reduce the amount of convincing your side needs to do.