Gerald Greene, a white Republican from Georgia, has represented the heavily rural, majority-black District 151 in the state House of Representatives for the past three decades. Because, according to Democrats, 151 is the state’s only minority-dominated district represented by a Republican, the Democratic Party had been eyeing it as a promising pick-up for the next election—a win, Democratic leaders say, that would signify a significant correction to years of the county’s black Democrats lacking legislative representation. In early March, the party finalized the candidacy of James Williams, a retired police officer from Albany, to run what Democratic strategists believed could be a winning challenge to Greene.
Yet on March 26, Williams went from campaigning against Greene to struggling to preserve his right to run in the election at all. That day, Williams says he received a call from the office of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, informing him that Greene had challenged his residency—and thus his eligibility to run in the district. Greene’s petition against Williams’s candidacy had found a receptive audience among the state’s top Republicans, who decided that, on closer inspection, Williams did not in fact reside in District 151. Suddenly, the majority-black district appeared to have no Democratic candidate residing within its lines, and the Williams campaign against Greene entered a realm of deep uncertainty.
“It was astonishing that I was being challenged after having voted in District 151 for approximately 18 years,” Williams told me. “I never thought something like this could happen in Georgia.”
This development has infuriated state Democrats, who have previously accused Kemp of deploying tactics to suppress the state’s Democratic-leaning minority vote. Democrats contend that, on March 7, using Kemp’s own residency data, the party qualified Williams to run in District 151. Yet sometime around March 18, the party alleges, the boundary lines of District 151 quietly changed in Kemp’s database, edging Williams just outside of the district. Kemp’s office on Tuesday essentially confirmed this account. An emailed statement from Georgia Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce said that during redistricting, “Dougherty County elections officials incorrectly designated Mr. Williams as living in House District 151. When alerted to their error, county officials corrected their mistake.” Williams, the statement noted, apparently lives in House District 154. “Our office sent the challenge to the Office of State Administrative Hearings as we do with any challenge we receive, and a hearing is scheduled for April 13.”
Not surprisingly, Georgia Democrats see this as
something other than an innocent mistake. “In a district that is majority
African-American and that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in the last
two elections, any voter should be highly suspect of what has occurred,” said
Georgia House Whip Carolyn Hugley in an
emailed statement. “The district lines changed when a white Republican
incumbent was challenged by a highly-qualified black Democratic
Greene rejects accusations of voter suppression and emphasizes that he has long had minority support. “I’m not even going to comment on that,” Greene said when I asked about accusations that his residency challenge might suppress the black vote. “I’ve represented a minority district for 33 years.”
The controversy over District 151 comes as the country prepares for its first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s 2013 dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required areas with histories of election discrimination to gain federal approval for all changes to election law. Alterations to state legislative lines would have fallen under the act’s “pre-clearance” requirement. “Even small district shifts for a jurisdiction covered under the pre-clearance provision would have had to be pre-cleared before they could lawfully go into effect,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center, said in an email.
Since 2013, legislatures in many of the nine,
mostly Southern states that had been covered under the act have enacted new
restrictions on voting. This includes high-profile voter ID laws in Texas and
Alabama that advocates say will negatively impact hundreds of thousands of
residents. In the months following the Supreme Court decision, cities and
counties around Georgia moved to close polling places—in some cases dramatic scale-back proposals that
would leave only a single voting location left—and the city of Augusta took steps to move its election from November to July, which the Department of Justice had previously
blocked. (Augusta’s black voter turnout tends to be proportionally lower during
the summer months.)
Opponents of new voting restrictions can only challenge new rules after they take effect, a far harder task than the previous model of simply swatting down unimplemented proposals. Ahead of this year’s election, voting rights advocates have been engaged in a whack-a-mole struggle to address the myriad controversial state, county, and municipal changes to election rules.
For the past ten days, Democratic leaders in Georgia have scrambled to convince officials to allow Williams to continue his candidacy. Yet their appeals have made little headway. Democrats say that on Friday they heard from the state’s attorney general that Kemp’s office would neither allow Williams to challenge Greene nor reopen qualifying to give Democrats an opportunity to find someone else.
Democrats contend that whatever the state’s rationale for disqualifying Williams, it was Kemp’s data that had placed him in the district for years, his data that allowed him to initially qualify to run, and his data that caused the party to place resources behind Williams’s candidacy. Williams’s run, they say, represents a setback for Democrats that Republicans both created and from which they will benefit. “There has to be some point at which district lines are fixed so that you can conduct elections,” said Michael Jablonski, the General Counsel of the Georgia Democratic Party. “Anytime anyone checked the records, it said that Mr. Williams was in 151, but after March 14, that got changed. Everyone on his street was all of a sudden in District 154.”
Greene told me that the residency challenge stemmed from rumors that Williams did not live in the district. Greene says he knows nothing about previous records that might show Williams residing in 151. When I asked Greene whether he had spoken to Willams before qualifying him, Greene responded: “I don’t know him. I don’t know anything about him.”
On April 13, Williams and Greene will drive three hours north from Albany to Atlanta, to attend a hearing on his residency. Williams says that despite the turmoil surrounding his candidacy he has continued to campaign. He says that faltering medical services in the heavily rural parts of his district represent one of the animating forces behind his campaign, and that he would use a seat in the statehouse to push for extending Obama’s expansion of Medicaid to Georgia, which has been blocked by state Republicans.
“I’m going to keep working hard and campaigning,” Williams said. “I want to serve the people of this district.”