Georgia Today: How Racial Gerrymandering Divided A South Georgia Town
Deep in southwest Georgia, a local school board has been torn apart over racial gerrymandering. On Georgia Today, New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey discusses how the long shadow of voter suppression manifested in a voting map, and why electoral outcomes often come down to the lines we draw on paper.
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Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Nov. 6th, 2020. With the nation, not to mention Georgia, focused on presidential and Senate race outcomes this week, many have noted and even bemoaned that the final decision on Election 2020 comes down to a few states and even just a few counties. How we vote and how much our votes matter hinges in part on where we live, who our neighbors are, and how voter maps divide districts. This week, we're taking a look at the impact of one voter map deep in southwest Georgia, in the very county that Jimmy Carter calls home, where the local school board has been torn apart over racial gerrymandering.
Attorney Bryan Sells: This is not a case where there is a shred of factual evidence that Black voters have overcome the history of discrimination that lingers even today.
Steve Fennessy: Today, New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey on what he learned from traveling to Americus, Georgia, and how, in an election year like no other, voter suppression can take many forms. So, Nick, you're a national politics reporter for The New York Times, and not long ago, you did a really long involved story that's out of Americus, Georgia. What brought you there?
Nick Casey: Well, I was looking for a piece to write about voter suppression, and there's just so many different ways to cover this right now. And this was kind of one of the less obvious ways. I mean, the obvious ways to write about voter suppression is when someone's not allowing you to cast a ballot, someone's asking for a form of ID that you might not have, or a governor purged you from the voter rolls. But what had happened in Americus was very different. This kind of suppression that was going on took place in the form of a voting map. The map of the county was changed, and under the old map, there had been an African American majority on the school board. But when the new map was put in place, it radically changed. It went from the board — from having six Black members out of nine to a smaller board that had only seven members, but also only two African Americans in the board. And what the moral of this was, was that in this map, despite the fact that everybody who wanted to had gone out and voted and everybody's vote was counted, in the end, certain votes mattered more than others; certain votes counted more than others.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you're sort of describing almost the Electoral College in the sense that where I live, my vote matters more than if I live somewhere else.
Nick Casey: It's very similar. That's the strange thing about American democracy, is it's thought of as one person, one vote, but it's really all about maps and where those votes lie on the maps. So, yeah, in the case of the Electoral College, it means that if you vote in a state, in a winner-takes-all system, and you didn't vote for the winner, your vote didn't count. And in the case of these county maps, these county maps are being drawn all over the country for school boards, for water districts, for county commissioner seats. You could’ve drawn them in a way that will have radically different results, depending on who is the author of the map and what is the desired outcome.
Steve Fennessy: Well, Americus, Georgia, is in Sumter County. Tell us a little bit about that place and its history.
Nick Casey: Yeah, this is a place which has been in the middle of civil rights and voting rights issues for decades, almost as long as anybody who lives there can remember. You talk to the people who live in Sumter County and they'll tell you about when Martin Luther King was jailed in the Sumter County jail in the 1960s; the Americus Movement, which was a civil rights movement, which was out of Americus, Georgia; and about Clarence Jordan, who was a Baptist minister who lived in Sumter County just outside of Americus and ran a farm called the Koinonia Farm, which was one of the first integrated farms in the United States and was repeatedly attacked by the KKK and groups that were trying to bring it down. So Sumter County has a long history when it comes to defending itself in civil rights issues. And a lot of the people who were involved in this dispute remember previous times when they had to stand up for their right to vote. You know, the funniest thing about the Sumter County school board was that was actually the first political post that Jimmy Carter had. He is, of course, from Plains, Georgia, which is in Sumter County. And he has written about how that was a real eye-opening experience to be at the Sumter County school board in the 1950s when not just seeing the effects of segregation, but also just seeing the conditions of the schools where African Americans were going to at the time.
Steve Fennessy: You talked about maps and how important they are. When we're talking about, you know, a relatively small county like Sumter County, Georgia, who's in charge of drawing the maps?
Nick Casey: So Georgia's state Legislature is the ultimate decider on whether the map goes in place and they do some consultation with county officials, but this whole process was very different since the Voting Rights Act was passed, because to get a new map in place, you had to get federal approval if you were in most states in the South. And this was because part — one of the main provisions of the Voting Rights Act was that you couldn’t draw maps in ways that discriminated against racial minorities.
Steve Fennessy: OK.
Nick Casey: But in 2013, there was a very important Supreme Court case called Shelby County v. Holder, where Shelby County, which was a county in Alabama, challenged this rule, saying that it held the South to an unfair standard and that times have changed since the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Nick Casey: And to almost everybody's surprise, who was watching the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court actually agreed. Here's Chief Justice John Roberts delivering the majority opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts: Any racial discrimination in voting is too much, but our country has changed in the past 50 years. When taking such extraordinary steps as subjecting state legislation to preclearance in Washington and applying that regime only to some disfavored states, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes speaks to current conditions. The coverage formula, unchanged for 40 years, plainly does not do so, and therefore we have no choice but to find that it violates the Constitution.
Nick Casey: And this removed one of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It essentially defanged it in many ways. This process of federal approval, which is called preclearance, was one of the linchpins to making sure that maps didn't get drawn unfairly. When this was gone, this allowed state legislatures throughout the nation to adopt these maps regardless of whether the federal government had approved of them and, if they were found to be discriminatory by the people who lived in these areas, they then had the burden of proof to prove to a judge that this map needed to be redrawn. And, you know, as we know with court cases, these cases could take years. And this is also what happened in Sumter County.
Steve Fennessy: Right. And so the other word for this is gerrymandering, right?
Nick Casey: It's gerrymandering. It's racially motivated gerrymandering. When we think of gerrymandering, the word comes from a politician named Gary who in the 18th and the 19th century had drawn a district which looked like a salamander, which they called the gerrymander. This was an effort to keep him in charge. What you're seeing in the South is a bit different than that. It's not to keep one politician, per se, in his or her district. It's more to keep a certain segment of the population in control.
Steve Fennessy: OK. So, you know, let's back up a little because we're talking about a map that specifically pertaining to the county school board in Sumter County, which oversees the public schools of Sumter County, right?
Nick Casey: Yeah, that's right.
Steve Fennessy: And what's sort of the racial breakdown in Sumter County in terms of, say, the students that go to the public schools of Sumter County?
Nick Casey: So Sumter County has about 70 percent African Americans attending the public schools right now. And the reason why that number is very significant is because Black people are about just a bit more than 52 percent of the population. They're very overly represented in the public schools because many white families have chosen to send their children to private schools or outside of Sumter County into districts nearby, which are more predominantly white. So that has brought the white population down in Sumter County and means that it's almost — there are almost three quarters Black students in the public schools.
Steve Fennessy: And the story you ended up writing pivots largely around two central characters, one of whom is a white woman named Donna Minich, and the other being a Black woman who is named Carolyn Whitehead. What roles were they playing in this — in this drama in Sumter County?
Nick Casey: Well, they were two residents. Carolyn Whitehead had grown up in Sumter County, Donna Minich had come from — she worked for Habitat for Humanity but originally come from Chicago. And what was interesting about these two women was that they both consider themselves liberal, but they had very opposing views when it came to how this map was going to play out and what the consequences of it were. I was interested in them because for a time they knew each other. For a time, their — both of their sons played on the same soccer team in Sumter County. And Donna's, you know, husband was the coach. But when it came to drawing the lines for how these districts were going to be built, that's when they really found themselves on opposite sides here. And that's when, you know, you could really see the community beginning to pull itself apart along racial lines.
Steve Fennessy: And the precipitating event, as you said, was sort of a redrawing of this map and, as I understand it, the school board had been comprised of nine members. And then Donna Minich, who is an outgoing school board member, was proposing a map to reduce that number to seven. Is that correct?
Nick Casey: That's right.
Steve Fennessy: So what's the reason for going from nine to seven?
Nick Casey: Well, Donna never saw this as a racial issue at all. She said that the county, which is a rural county, had nine school board members and that was too big. There were counties much bigger than Sumter County with large urban areas and smaller school boards. So what was the purpose of, you know, having the budget to have nine members of the school board when you could have a smaller number? Now, when Carolyn Whitehead took a look at this, she looked more closely at how these districts were being drawn and who was in them. And one of the things that she began to notice was that many of the districts which had been held by Black members of the board suddenly had a larger number of white voters in them. And her first reaction was it was going to be very hard for Black, you know, candidates to win in these districts with how they were composed. The other part of this map had to do with having two countywide seats. You know, you have districts which are voted on by communities drawing a map and then you have countywide seats where everybody in the county picks.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Nick Casey: Sumter County does not have a very big track record at the local level of Black candidates winning countywide races. And lawyers have said this is because Black turnout is lower than white turnout after a history of voter suppression that goes back generations. The timeline is that Donna Minich, she was proposing the map in 2010 just before a vote which created the first African American majority on the school board. And then once that majority got seated, one of their first moves to do was to actually withdraw the map, withdraw the map from the federal government approval process because they detected that there was something off.
Steve Fennessy: OK.
Nick Casey: This then opened kind of a fight that went on for a number of years between the number of white parents in the community there and the Black school board, which involved calling a grand jury to investigate members of the board, you know, public pressure campaigns to adopt this map and ended in 2013 with the Shelby decision, which meant that there needed to be no federal oversight for the map at all. And what happened then was the Georgia state legislature simply plucked the map up as they were now allowed to do and approved it. In 2014, the map was voted on and that brought in the new school board, which was now majority white. Because so many of the older people in the African American community in Americus remember the civil rights movement, there is a very strong sensitivity to anything that might affect voting there. So the NAACP has a very strong presence in Sumter County and has been extremely vocal about this issue for years. It was, you know, Rev. Mathis Wright, who is the head of the NAACP, that filed a lawsuit with the court actually in his own name, not on behalf of the NAACP, that spearheaded this.
Steve Fennessy: And here's Rev. Wright speaking in a video produced by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the lawsuit.
Reverend Mathis Kearse Wright Jr.: Well, it's important because it will allow everyone to have an opportunity to have the same access to a good education. The seven members will come from completely — maybe different backgrounds all over the county, and then they will be the ones that will set the tone for the — for our 21st century schools. And right now, the people who are serving are not those people, because they are — their terms have all expired.
Steve Fennessy: After the break: The courts weigh in and the impact on Election 2020. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm talking with New York Times reporter Nick Casey about Sumter County and the voter maps that have caused such controversy in this part of rural south Georgia. As this sort of unfolded, this — this controversy, it reached a federal judge in Middle Georgia, right?
Nick Casey: That's right, yeah, Judge Louis Sands.
Steve Fennessy: And so what was — what was his reaction to it?
Nick Casey: His reaction upon looking at the map, having a look at the history of voter suppression in Sumter County, and hearing the arguments from both sides was that this map was an illegal map. It did reduce the size of the school board, as Donna Minich had set out to do. But it also, you know, did something different racially on the board. What he found was that a school system that was 70 percent Black was being run by a school board that had become 70 percent white and that this was a consequence of the map. The map had been drawn in a way that African Americans were having trouble winning. So what did he do? He assigned an outside independent map designer, a professor named Bernie Grofman, who's an expert in gerrymandering and how to un-gerrymander districts, to design a new map and something that would appear competitive. The goal of this map wasn't necessarily to mean that African Americans would win the majority of seats. It was simply meant to mean that the districts that this map has are competitive. It's foreseeable that anyone could win one of these seats. And that's what the idea of this map was: to create what he calls a legal map.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you mentioned that — that word a minute ago that he had found the map to be illegal. So you've explained sort of the effect of the map in his eyes. But what was it that was illegal about it?
Nick Casey: So under the Voting Rights Act, you're not allowed to create a map which is seen as discriminating on the basis of race. And the change that was made from the first map, the outcome of the first map to the outcome of the second map, was seen as having done, you know, just — just that. Because the pendulum swung so swiftly in the other direction under the new map that was made, it was deemed as just statistically too difficult for African Americans to win these — these seats in the district. And that's why it was seen as not legal. There is a level of — of interpretation that the judge can have in terms of, like, what is going too far. In this case, it was seen as having gone too far.
Steve Fennessy: After Judge Sands handed down his ruling that the map had to be changed, Sumter County's Board of Elections appealed the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Here’s attorney Bryan Sells, who represents Rev. Wright during oral arguments for the case this past September.
Attorney Bryan Sells: This is not a case where there is a shred of factual evidence that Black voters have overcome the history of discrimination that lingers even today.
Steve Fennessy: On the other side of the case, attorney Richard Riley represented Sumter County Board of Elections, and argued that the 2018 decision to change the county's voting map should be reversed.
Attorney Richard Riley: The court erroneously failed to require the plaintiffs to establish a causal connection between the at-large seat and the alleged inequality of opportunity. It erroneously held that it must assume a causal connection between the election results and past discrimination. But Section Two affords equal opportunity, not equal success. It guarantees participation, not outcome.
Steve Fennessy: Ultimately, the 11th Circuit Court decided not to overturn the lower court's decision. So Professor Gorfman's, as you say, “un-gerrymandered” map stands. What's the status of that map?
Nick Casey: So the map is complete. People were voted on the map during early voting already, and the expectation is that there's going to be a new school board. In the eyes of the court, the outcome of this map was a competitive one and will be much more fair than the one that preceded it.
Steve Fennessy: So everyone who is on the school board before had to run for reelection on Nov. 3rd?
Nick Casey: Exactly. The judge said that the way that everyone on that board had been elected was not right. And a new election needed to be held under a fair map. And that's what's happening now.
Steve Fennessy: And I'm curious, because of all of the contentiousness between and among the school board members, both Black and white, how or whether that tension sort of trickled down to the students themselves. How did this — how — how did this show itself? Or did it?
Nick Casey: Yeah, it did. I mean, there have been racial tensions for years within the school district. But, you know, one of the incidents that — that came up a few times in my reporting had to do with a class salutatorian a couple of years back who was Black. And she wanted to give a speech to her classmates during graduation, which was going to begin with some explanation of what she had seen as the — the racial tension at the school and the difficulty for African Americans to succeed in the school district. She and her mother say that before the speech was supposed to be given, a teacher who was meant to review the speech told her not to give that part of the speech, the speech which was talking about the struggles of African Americans in the district. And, you know, the young woman decided to go ahead and give the speech anyway, at which point her microphone was cut off and she wasn't able to give the speech as she planned. She later gave the speech on Facebook so other people could listen to her. But afterwards she was brought in by the school, threatened to have her diploma withdrawn and other disciplinary action.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Nick Casey: The, you know, the school district eventually decided not to go that path, but this was after it had already made, you know, many, you know, many headlines in local news at that point. And this was just, you know, one of the many things that are, you know, when you have a conflict like this, which is just in the air, NAACP sort of challenging a white school board, a map being drawn. This stuff does reach the level of the classroom, too, because, you know, Americus isn't a big place. These are people's parents. The teachers know what's going on. And, yeah, it was just kind of attention that — that — that remained in the air for — for a long time.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to New York Times reporter Nick Casey. On Tuesday, Sumter County voted on the new makeup of the school board under the judge's redrawn map. Results show the incoming school board will have four members who are Black and three who are white. That's a significant shift from just two Black members and five white members under the previous map. I'm Steve Fennessy; this is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg