Aklima Khondoker has spent most of her legal career making sure others get a fair shot. She has pushed for women’s reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, racial justice and voting rights.
Khondoker honed her voting rights skills at the ACLU of Georgia, where she created the Voting Access Project, a program that blends grassroots organizing, policy and litigation to improve and expand access to the ballot. She later served as the Georgia director of All Voting is Local, a campaign of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, before joining The New Georgia Project last May as chief legal officer.
At the nonpartisan voter-registration group, Khondoker has created vote defender and voter protection programs to track and respond to voting rights problems arising from the new Georgia Election Integrity law (Senate Bill 202).
“Because SB 202 is fairly new–it just rolled out last year–counties and voters have a lot of questions on how to access the ballot,” Khondoker told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Atlanta Civic Circle asked Khondoker to assess the current legal challenges to Georgia’s redistricting maps which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law on Dec. 30. Civil and voting rights groups recently filed lawsuits challenging the new congressional and state legislative maps as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,. Section 2 banned states from imposing voting laws that discriminate against racial or language minorities. New Georgia Project is not a plaintiff in any of the three lawsuits.
The lawsuits seek to remap the statehouse, senate, and congressional districts so they’re more reflective of the state’s growing diversity. They also want “remedial redistricting plans” more in line with the Voting Rights Act – and even an “interim electoral plan” for the upcoming 2022 elections. Khondoker talked solely about the congressional map. She declined to predict what the judge would do but concedes “it’s a likely scenario” the judge could strike down the challenged maps and order new ones.
“If the judge looks at the maps with traditional redistricting principles in mind, and recognizes that these maps put communities of interests at risk, and disproportionately affect communities of color,” “Khondoker said. “The judge certainly has the ability to have equitable and fair maps drawn that represent the constituents within that community.”
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tammy Joyner: Are these redistricting lawsuits asking for a do-over?
Aklima Khondoker: It’s a do-it-right more than a do-over. Every 10 years when there is a new census, we expect redistricting schemes and we know people are going to be shifting districts.
It’s to be expected, especially when you have a GOP-led legislature that has been, over the past few years, hungry for votes, fighting for ways to elevate their status in Georgia and fighting to keep Georgia looking the way it has for decades. They’re fighting against change. Given that landscape, this isn’t a bombshell at all.
If the judge grants an injunction, what happens to candidates in districts that have been redrawn?
It affects voters more than candidates because it means vote dilution. It means that they have lost their voting strengths, where before they were voting in a district where they would have more weight behind their vote because it would be counted towards this particular candidate in this particular district.
As for the candidate, they cannot properly put forth a platform that honestly tells the story of the community they want to represent [because the district is in dispute]. That candidate has a much harder time winning an election. So there are very real consequences both for people who are voters and who are candidates. Their votes will not count the way that they have in the past.
Is there enough time for the Democrats to challenge and change these maps through the courts before the primaries?
Yes. There is no expiration date for justice. It would require a careful review of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to consider what impact these maps are going to have on racial minority groups or linguistic minority populations within that community. That is something for the court to decide.
The lawsuits call for creating a remedial plan. What does that entail?
The judge will typically ask: “Tell me, plaintiffs, what a proper map should look like. Tell me what you suggest?”
The judge must consider whether the minority group or linguistic minority [that has been redrawn] is sufficiently large and geographically concentrated to make up a majority and hold the [original] district.
You also have to show that the minority group votes as a bloc. Is it a politically cohesive group that typically votes together for similar candidates? Can you also show that the new majority of white voters will vote as a bloc to defeat the minority-preferred candidate?
Judges will typically consider whether there is a history of discrimination in this particular community, based on historical data. Do minority groups have the same access to education, employment opportunities, or other things that will tilt the scale when looking at whether the map should be redrawn?
The Democratic Party of Georgia and a coalition of Democratic groups presented their preferred maps before the redistricting session. Could they present those maps in court as potential alternatives to the newly redrawn maps they’re challenging?
Yes, it’s possible. However, a judge will usually put it up to the parties to determine what a fair map is, or a special master appointed by the court, will draw a map and determine what is the best for that community. Alternative maps show that an alternative is possible.
Are we heading into a protracted court fight? Assuming the court agrees that the maps should be redrawn, is there enough time to create maps that both Democratic and Republican legislators would agree upon in time for upcoming elections in March?
Absolutely. Like I said before, there is no expiration date for justice. Time is very tight, but I think if (all involved parties are) properly motivated, then certainly it can happen.
Doesn’t the judge have to rule first that the maps should be redrawn?
In order for there to be a map that is presented? No. All the judge has to do is recognize there is a question of whether this is the best map or whether this map discriminates against people of color. The judge could go to the plaintiff and say ‘I hear what you’re saying, but can a better map be drawn? Are you able to do that?’
If new maps aren’t done in time, and there is an injunction, what maps do they use?
There are a lot of possible scenarios. If the judge were to grant the motion for injunctive relief, which means don’t put forward this new plan, it would mean we would be functioning under the old plan–at least, until a special master is appointed to either create a new district map or vet one that the plaintiff and defendant have provided to the court.
So you’re talking about possibly temporarily using the 2010 map? That map preceded the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder, which lifted preclearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act, mandating Southern states to get federal preclearance to make any changes to their electoral process, right?