UPDATE | Federal judge restricts challenge of political maps to Black voters

Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity had filed objections that new political maps dilute Black voting power
The House Reapportionment and Redistricting committee meet for a hearing to discuss Senate Bill 3Ex at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The House Reapportionment and Redistricting committee meet for a hearing to discuss Senate Bill 3Ex at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones started Wednesday’s hearing on the state’s newly drawn political districts dealing somewhat of a blow to those challenging the new maps.

In October, Jones ruled that districts passed in 2021 violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by illegally diluting Black voting power and tasked them with creating seven new majority-Black legislative districts and one new majority-Black congressional district. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the new GOP-drawn maps that keep the Legislature and state’s congressional delegation firmly in Republican control into law on Dec. 8.

Groups challenging the congressional maps are basing part of their argument on what they are calling the “dismantling” of a “minority opportunity district” with changes to Congressional District 7, currently represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath. Nonwhite voters make up a majority of the population in that district but no one race makes a majority.

Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats in Georgia while most white voters back Republicans.

In his order, Jones said lawmakers could not eliminate any existing “minority opportunity districts,” generally defined as areas where racial minority groups are able to elect their preferred candidates by attracting some support from white voters. They also could not eliminate any existing majority-Black districts.

But on Wednesday, Jones started the proceedings by specifying that his order focused only on Black voters.

“The scope of this case has always been about Black voters,” Jones said. “This court was not asked to consider any other” nonwhite racial groups.

Abha Khanna, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that Congressional District 7 was overhauled from a district where a coalition of white and nonwhite voters supported McBath to one that has a white voting population of more than 75%, likely becoming solidly Republican.

The state did not create an “additional district in which Black voters have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates,” she said.

The Republican-drawn map does not provide additional opportunities for Black representation in the U.S. House, leaving in place the GOP’s 9-5 advantage among Georgia’s congressional delegation.

Under the proposed map, the state increases the number of majority-Black districts from two to four, but nine districts would remain majority-white — the same amount as Georgia’s current districts.

Bryan Tyson, an attorney representing the state, said the court did not require lawmakers to consider other nonwhite voters who aren’t Black or the existence of “coalition districts” when drawing the maps.

“The plaintiffs want to swap all references to ‘Black voters’ to ‘all minority voters,’ which is not what was argued in the court,” he said. “Black voters here have more ‘opportunity districts’ than they did in the 2021 maps.”

Jones’ order required legislators to create an additional majority-Black congressional district in west metro Atlanta by Dec. 8. He also called for two more state Senate districts and five more state House districts with Black majorities in the Atlanta and Macon areas.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and other Black voters and organizations say the Republican-drawn maps fall short of the judge’s order because they move voters around in a way that still denies Black voters representation. Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically Black fraternity that’s been active in civil rights causes, and other plaintiffs successfully sued the state over the 2021 maps.

Attorneys for the state say the General Assembly followed Jones’ order.

Jones said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has told him that if he determines new maps are necessary, they must be in place by Jan. 16 to meet the necessary deadlines to prepare ballots for the presidential primary election in March.