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By Mark Niesse and Maya T. Prabhu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Atlanta — In the rapidly changing political battleground of Georgia, a federal judge’s order will force the state to redo its district maps to ensure Black representation reflects their tremendous population growth. online news
The ruling Thursday set off a scramble by Democrats hoping to pick up seats in Congress and the General Assembly. Meanwhile, the majority Republicans were working to draw district lines that minimize their losses as GOP officials prepare for potential appeals that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Already, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp called lawmakers to the Georgia Capitol for a post-Thanksgiving special session, when they’ll wrestle with the court order that requires them to add a majority-Black congressional district in west metro Atlanta by Dec. 8. The judge also ordered seven new state legislative seats with Black majorities.
Democrats could gain a seat in Congress in the new district because Black voters overwhelmingly support the party’s candidates, but Republicans are likely to try to shape district lines in a way that preserves their 9-5 advantage in Georgia’s delegation to the U.S. House.
A key question is whether Republicans in the General Assembly, who control 57% of seats, will comply with the judge’s ruling or attempt to resist it, said Kareem Crayton, senior director for voting and representation for the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting advocacy organization.
“It definitely means they’ll have to give up some of the advantages they sought with the gerrymander they crafted” when they redistricted the state two years ago, Crayton said. “In a state that’s drastically changing, it’s obvious that the politics in the state are way more competitive than Republicans are happy about.”
So far, Republicans have criticized U.S. District Judge Steve Jones’ decision without indicating whether they’ll follow his requirements. New maps with different district boundaries might not be released until next month’s special session begins.
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Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who runs the voting group Greater Georgia, called the ruling “a disappointing but unsurprising victory for liberal activists attempting to interfere in next year’s elections.”
“Greater Georgia expects a successful appeal and that partisan efforts to undermine our state’s legislative and congressional races ahead of 2024 will be dismissed,” Loeffler said.
In a similar case in Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial discrimination and let stand a lower court’s decision requiring Georgia’s neighbor to add a second congressional district for Black voters.
Whether the appellate courts treat Georgia the same way remains to be seen. While potential motions to stay Jones’ 516-page order could be decided quickly, full appeals wouldn’t be decided until next year.
After an eight-day trial last month, Jones concluded that Black voters “have suffered significant harm” by Republican-drawn maps in 2021 that reduced their representation.
Black voters accounted for nearly half of Georgia’s population growth since 2010, but state legislators shaped districts in a way that resulted in Democrats losing a seat in Congress during last year’s elections.
“The General Assembly ignored Georgia’s diversification over the last decade and enacted a state legislative map that demonstrably diluted the voting strength of Black voters,” said Rahul Garabadu, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which represented some of the plaintiffs. “The General Assembly should now move swiftly to enact a remedial map that fairly represents Black voters.”
If Democrats pick up a Georgia seat next year, they could shrink the current 222-212 Republican majority in the U.S. House. Court battles over redistricting are also playing out in several other states, which have the potential to further erode the GOP’s advantage.
“This whole thing is a process — a legislative process and now a judicial one,” said state Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican who represents one of the districts that Jones ruled violated the Voting Rights Act. “Our goal is and has always been ‘one person, one vote.’ ”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled redistricting for partisan gain is legal, but creating maps that reduce the voting power of Black voters is not.
“This is a significant step toward equal representation for all voters, especially Black voters in Georgia, and yet another example of the necessity of the critical protections enshrined in the Voting Rights Act,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “Gerrymandering has denied Black Georgia voters fair representation — and that will soon change.”
The National Republican Redistricting Trust said appeals courts should review the role of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as America becomes increasingly diversified.
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“The VRA was enacted to address significant racially discriminatory practices, but due to a series of overreaching opinions, it is quickly becoming a vehicle for liberal special interests to try to remedy their political problems,” the group said.
There are currently four Georgia congressional districts with Black majorities or pluralities, along with another racially mixed district based in Gwinnett County. Those five districts are the ones held by Democrats.
While Republicans could try to save all of their seats in Congress by simply adding a fifth majority-Black district, that effort might not comply with Jones’ ruling. His order said that the state can’t remedy its violations by eliminating “minority opportunity districts.”
During the 2021 redistricting, Republicans gave themselves an advantage in the 6th Congressional District, based in Cobb County, by including heavily conservative and white areas north of Atlanta. As a result, Republican Rich McCormick won the seat and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Black woman who previously held the 6th District post, switched districts and ousted her Democratic colleague Carolyn Bourdeaux.
Black representatives in the Georgia House expressed concern about the redistricting do-over, saying legislators need to safeguard equal representation.
“Every vote and voice must be protected, and it is our duty to ensure the redistricting process is carried out with upmost fairness and integrity,” said state Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Democrat from Savannah and chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.
White Republicans hold nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. House, a larger share than the 50% of the state’s population of white people. Black Democrats control the other five seats, with Black residents making up one-third of residents.
The Republican majority in the state House and Senate will probably remain secure even after the addition of new majority-Black districts in the Atlanta and Macon areas. Jones ordered two more Senate districts and five more state House districts with Black majorities.
Republicans currently have a 102-78 advantage in the state House and a 33-23 edge in the state Senate.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent of Atlanta noted that an evaluation by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave Georgia’s state Senate districts an “F” grade for partisan fairness. The state House maps received a “B” grade, and congressional maps were given a “C.”
“Our court system could not be more important at a time like this,” Parent said. “While I am grateful for the lifeline, the court system has thrown at us and that the state Legislature has the opportunity to rectify this injustice, we should not have to rely on a court or a judge to enforce what is right.”
Leading up to the Nov. 29 special redistricting session, Democratic challengers are already preparing for campaigns next year. Republican mapmakers will privately draft new maps, and incumbents will jockey to protect their positions.
Then, after new lines are drawn and if the court’s ruling is upheld, many Georgia voters might find themselves in new districts when they head to the polls in 2024.
The presidential primary is scheduled for March 12, and every congressional and state legislative seat will be up for election during the May 21 general primary and the Nov. 5 general election.
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