Gwinnett at-large voting suit could have implications for Gainesville

Minority voters in Gwinnett County can’t elect local candidates of their choice because of unfairly drawn political districts, advocacy groups say, and they want a federal judge to order changes.

The lawsuit filed Monday could have significant implications for Gainesville as the Latino population grows locally.

“What we’re asking for is the elimination of at-large voting, as well as a total redrawing of all of the maps,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “I think this should send a message to all jurisdictions.”

The Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Georgia NAACP joined GALEO in the lawsuit representing seven Gwinnett residents against the county commission and school board.

The suit says nearly all districts for both boards are majority white, even though black, Latino and Asian-American residents collectively made up 53.5 percent of the county’s total population in the 2010 U.S. Census.

No minority candidate has ever won a seat on the Gwinnett County Commission or Board of Education.

“This is a case about political power, and the exclusion of racial minorities from those key posts,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “The Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure everyone has equal access to the political process.”

Representatives for the county commission and board of education didn’t immediately return requests for comment on the suit.

The Newtown Florist Club filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the at-large voting system in Gainesville in 1991.

Minority political organizers then rallied for months last summer to call for replacing the current system with a district voting process where only voters in a particular geographic area select a candidate from their ward to represent them.

It is the same process used to elect members to the city school board and Hall County Board of Commissioners.

Proponents of district voting believe it is more equitable and will ensure that minority candidates are elected to the City Council.

Supporters of the current at-large voting process, however, believe it provides for citywide representation, rather than by street, subdivision or specific demographic community.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said on Monday that city officials have had no discussions on at-large voting since it came roaring back to attention last summer.

According to U.S. Census estimates, there are about 36,000 residents in Gainesville, and about 42 percent of the population is Latino, about 39 percent is white alone and about 15 percent is African-American.

But no Latino has ever served on the council.

Gonzalez said he believes a Latino-majority district can be carved out in the city and that “there is clearly is a historical coalition between Latinos and African-Americans in the city of Gainesville.”

But city officials dispute this.

“There's not (a district) that can meet that standard,” Dunagan said, adding that he is willing to “work it out” with groups like GALEO when and if Latinos can be shown to encompass a majority of a potential district.

The Gwinnett lawsuit comes amid numerous challenges to laws toughening voter ID requirements in many states and three years after the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act requiring jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get federal approval before changing local voting protocol.

And a federal court ruled in 2014 that Fayette County’s at-large voting system violated the Voting Rights Act and a majority black district was carved out for county commission and school board elections.

Catalina Ortiz, one of the seven named plaintiffs, moved to Gwinnett County in 2009 from New York. Born in Colombia, Ortiz has become a naturalized citizen and said she feels minorities' concerns go unaddressed in Gwinnett.

For instance, Ortiz said she’s seen public schools struggle to find volunteer translators to help during parent-teacher conferences and she believes more diverse elected officials would be more responsive to such concerns. The lawsuit also cites higher rates of discipline, including suspensions, against minority students than students who are white and Gwinnett’s refusal to provide bilingual election ballots.

“I pay taxes, I vote, I’m involved in my community,” Ortiz, 30, said. “I feel it’s unfair ... I see the effects every day.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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