Feds OK Georgia voting lines, GOP advantage

The Department of Justice on Friday delivered Georgia Republicans a major victory when it signed off on the state’s plan to redraw political boundaries, delivering the GOP a win but also denying it the chance to strike down the Voting Rights Act.

The onus now shifts to Georgia Democrats, who have said the GOP-backed redistricting plan for state House, Senate and congressional seats violates the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democrats can file their own suit to challenge the maps.

Republicans, who pushed through the new maps over Democratic objections during a special August legislative session, had simultaneously submitted its plan to the Justice Department for preclearance and sued the DOJ in federal court. Had the Justice Department rejected its maps, the state would have moved forward with its lawsuit.

Republicans had said publicly that they saw the court case as an avenue toward a declaration that the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. With the DOJ’s approval of its redistricting plan, however, that now seems moot.

Democrats argued that the proposed maps, based on the 2010 Census, violate the Voting Rights Act and dilute minority voting strength, while also targeting white Democrats for defeat. Republicans, however, said the process was fair and open and that the maps reflect only shifts in the state’s population.

Georgia is one of several states that must have any change in voting or election law precleared by either the DOJ or federal court before it can be implemented. Republicans here, who control the governor’s office, General Assembly and attorney general’s office, were wary of a Democratic-controlled Justice Department and simultaneously submitted the new maps for review by the DOJ and the federal court in Washington.

Redistricting, or redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts, happens at least once every 10 years after the release of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It is hugely important to elected officials because a minor change in district lines has the potential to sway an election.

It is equally important to voters because it can increase or decrease their community’s influence, depending how the lines are drawn.

The new maps approved by state lawmakers in August increases to 14 the number of congressional districts in Georgia, reflecting the state’s population growth in the 2010 census. It also could boost the state GOP margin in the U.S. House to 10-4, up from the current 8-5 advantage.

New maps approved for the state’s 180 House districts and 56 Senate districts show that Republicans could achieve two-thirds majorities in both chambers in November 2012 — enough to pass constitutional amendments without Democratic interference.

It is a push in reverse from what happened 10 years ago, when the state last dealt with redistricting.

After the 2000 Census, Democrats controlled the state House, Senate and governor’s office. Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker went straight to the federal court to get their maps approved, bypassing the U.S. Justice Department under Republican President George W. Bush.

It took nearly two years before that redistricting process for Georgia was settled in a federal court.