ATLANTA (AP) — The Democratic leader of the Georgia House said Monday that ruling Republicans are using redistricting to try to purge the state of white Democrats.
Stacey Abrams told a congressional forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that legislative maps members of her party have seen either place white Democrats in matchups against Republicans in GOP-leaning districts or pit them against black Democrats in heavily minority districts.
The Atlanta Democrat said that Republicans are using the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect the voting interests of minorities, as a justification for wiping out white Democrats. She called that "a craven and cynical misappropriation of the Voting Rights Act" and accused the GOP of trying to use the landmark civil rights law "to resegregate Georgia."
House Speaker David Ralston told the The Associated Press on Monday night that Abrams' injection of race into the debate "preposterous" and "baseless."
"We're following the law, unlike what happened 10 years ago," Ralston said, referring to the last round of redistricting, when Democrats controlled the process and some maps were tossed out by the courts.
Abrams' remarks came at a forum hosted by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who said voting rights are "under attack," and urged citizens to become engaged in the reapportionment process set to begin in Georgia on Monday.
Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the governors' mansion. It's the first time they will run a redistricting process.
Democrats have seen their numbers shrink in Georgia in recent years, and the loss of rural white Democrats is largely to blame for the decline.
Abrams said maps Democrats have seen would give Republicans a supermajority, with 121 members. They would create 49 districts where the majority of voters are minorities. That's up from 42 such districts that currently exist.
But she said the cost would be to make the Democratic Party in the state racially polarized.
State Rep. Roger Lane, chairman of the House committee on redistricting, said Monday night that Abrams' argument was not valid.
"I really don't care to comment," the Republican from Darien said.
The one majority Latino district that would be created would be represented by a non-Hispanic Republican, she said.
Lewis evoked his own history in the civil rights battles of the 1960s.
But he said that while obstacles like literacy tests and poll taxes no longer exist, more subtle discrimination exists that is even more dangerous. He cited the proliferation of voter ID laws as well as long lines and faulty voting machines in minority neighborhoods.
Lewis charged there has been in recent years "a deliberate, systematic attempt to block access to the ballot box."
State lawmakers meet every 10 years to redraw congressional and legislative district lines to conform to new U.S. Census data. Gov. Nathan Deal is set to call legislators back to the state Capitol for a special session to tackle it.
Lawmakers held a series of 12 public hearings around the state to gather input but did not answer questions. They have been busy behind closed doors working on maps that could be shown as soon as this week.
Monday night's hearing was billed as nonpartisan but the crowd leaned heavily Democratic.
Georgia is subject to the Voting Rights Act revised maps must receive approval from either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts.