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One of the country's fastest changing political landscapes is in suburban Atlanta


Here in the United States, one of the fastest-changing political landscapes is in suburban Atlanta. Gwinnett County's population has become more diverse, and more Democrats are getting elected to office there. But now state Republicans are getting involved in county redistricting and tossing out new voting district maps. Sam Gringlas of member station WABE reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: In 2018, Democrat Marlene Fosque made history.


MARLENE FOSQUE: It took 200 years for a person of color, me, to be elected by the Gwinnett citizens as the first Black Gwinnett County district commissioner.

GRINGLAS: Two years after Gwinnett elected their first Black county commissioner, voters turned the whole board Democratic, too. All the members were suddenly people of color.


FOSQUE: So what it says is that the people have changed. Change is not even coming for it; it's already here.

GRINGLAS: Typically, local elected officials in Georgia draw their own district maps after the census. The Legislature just rubber stamps them. So it was a surprise to Fosque when Republican lawmakers intervened and drew their own maps for several of Georgia's diversifying counties. In Gwinnett, Republicans redrew the territory Fosque represents. They made the seat whiter and more likely to elect a Republican by packing more voters of color into the other districts. State Representative Sam Park, a Democrat, tried to stop that map.

SAM PARK: It really dilutes the political power of Gwinnett voters of Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities, and it undermines their freedom to ultimately vote for their elected officials of choice.

GRINGLAS: We met at a Korean bakery near Park's Gwinnett District, where you can get sesame tapioca bread and passion fruit mochi doughnuts.


GRINGLAS: Park became the first Asian American Democrat elected to Georgia's Legislature when he unseated a Republican in 2016. By 2020, this once-Republican county helped propel Joe Biden to victory in the state. Like Georgia, Gwinnett has kept diversifying, racially and politically. Park says that's why the Republican-controlled Legislature stepped in - not just gerrymandering maps for the state House and Congress, but for local offices, too.

PARK: When all is said and done - being driven by a lot of fear that is harbored by folks who maybe are concerned that the changing demographics of Gwinnett is now being reflected in elected officials at the state and local level.

GRINGLAS: Republican State Representative Bonnie Rich says the voting map drawn by GOP lawmakers is more fair.


BONNIE RICH: My constituents come to me, and they tell me they have no voice and no seat at the table.

GRINGLAS: At a hearing, Gwinnett resident Michelle Frost said her support for the Republican-drawn map isn't about race; it's about ensuring perspectives like hers are represented in local government.


MICHELLE FROST: I feel like I live in an area that is the Crayola box of crayons, the 64 colors. And that's the life I prefer. It's not a conservative-liberal thing; it's a people thing.

GRINGLAS: The fact is, Republicans control the Legislature, and the Legislature has the final say on redistricting maps. Still, the Voting Rights Act forbids drawing districts that dilute the voting power of minorities. Here's Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center.

MICHAEL LI: Untangling race and politics is one of the hardest things that courts get asked to do, and it's particularly hard in the South where race and politics overlap to a very large degree.

GRINGLAS: Li says Gwinnett County is a microcosm for how Georgia is navigating shifts in demographics and political power.

LI: Some of the biggest battles around redistricting this cycle are going to be in the rapidly changing suburbs of the country, particularly the suburbs of the South.

GRINGLAS: Georgia Democrats and voting rights groups talked about challenging the new map in court. But the primary is May 24, so candidates like Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque acknowledge that trying to win in the Republican-drawn districts is their only option to keep their seat at the table.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas, in Duluth, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.