Federal judge upholds Georgia redistricting for 2022 elections

November 9, 2021 Atlanta - Sen. John Kennedy (R-18, Macon) answers a question from Emanuel Jones (D-10, Decatur), foreground, in the Senate Chambers during a special session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The hearing was a step toward votes on new political maps for the state House, state Senate and Congress during a once-a-decade redistricting session of the General Assembly. The Senate plans to vote on new maps Tuesday, and the House Redistricting Committee could advance its proposal as well. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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November 9, 2021 Atlanta - Sen. John Kennedy (R-18, Macon) answers a question from Emanuel Jones (D-10, Decatur), foreground, in the Senate Chambers during a special session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The hearing was a step toward votes on new political maps for the state House, state Senate and Congress during a once-a-decade redistricting session of the General Assembly. The Senate plans to vote on new maps Tuesday, and the House Redistricting Committee could advance its proposal as well. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Republicans drew maps to gain a seat in Congress

A federal judge ruled that Georgia’s redrawn political maps can remain in place for this year’s elections, deciding that it’s too close to the state’s May 24 primary election to make court-ordered redistricting changes.

The decision allows this year’s elections to proceed with new congressional districts designed for Republicans to gain a north metro Atlanta seat.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones’ ruling denied an effort by plaintiffs who argued that Georgia’s redistricting discriminated against Black voters by weakening their ability to elect candidates who represent them.

“The court finds that the public interest of the state of Georgia would be significantly undermined by altering the election calendar and unwinding the electoral process at this point,” Jones wrote in a 238-page order released Tuesday. “Elections are complex and election calendars are finely calibrated processes, and significant upheaval and voter confusion can result if changes are made late in the process.”

Candidate qualifying for the primary election begins Monday, and then voters will be mailed notifications of their new congressional, state and county districts before early voting begins May 2.

ExploreHow redistricting reshaped Georgia politics

Jones relied on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case last month, when the high court put on hold a lower court’s ruling that had found new congressional maps in Alabama diluted representation of Black voters. Justices in the Supreme Court’s conservative majority wrote that changes to Alabama’s map would have come too close to the 2022 primary, leaving little time to create new districts.

Lawsuits contesting Georgia’s map were filed as soon as Gov. Brian Kemp signed redistricting bills into law Dec. 30, 38 days after they passed the General Assembly.

Plaintiffs in the Georgia case, including civil rights and religious groups, alleged that redistricting reduced the voting strength of Black voters even as their population grew by nearly 500,000 over the last decade. Under the new maps, four of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts have a majority of nonwhite voters, the same as before redistricting.

The court case sought an additional majority-Black congressional district after the Republican-led General Assembly redrew the state’s political maps in the fall.

“This is a clear victory for common sense and order over liberals’ attempted partisan power grab,” said Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a defendant in the lawsuit. “Georgia’s maps are fair and adhere to traditional principles of redistricting.”

Under the new maps, Republicans stand to win an additional seat in Congress, where they currently hold an 8-6 majority among the state’s representatives.

State legislators redrew the district boundaries of the north metro Atlanta congressional district currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, making the district more rural so that it includes a much higher number of conservative-leaning voters. As a result, McBath is running for election this year in a neighboring district against fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.

While Jones ruled against the plaintiffs for this year’s elections, he will still consider the case for future elections.

Jones found that the plaintiffs satisfied many of the factors required to prove the state’s maps violated the Voting Rights Act. Those factors include a state’s history of voting discrimination, whether there are enough Black voters to constitute an additional district, and evidence that bloc voting by the majority denies the minority’s ability to elect its preferred candidates.

“The court cautions that this is an interim, non-final ruling that should not be viewed as an indication of how the court will ultimately rule on the merits at trial,” Jones wrote. “Under the specific circumstances of this case, the court finds that proceeding with the enacted maps for the 2022 election cycle is the right decision. But it is a difficult decision.”

Jones’ ruling cited the Purcell principle, the idea that courts shouldn’t change election rules soon before an election because doing so could confuse voters and cause problems in administering elections.

When the case goes to trial, tight deadlines before an upcoming election won’t be a factor before Jones makes a final decision.

“We will continue to fight these maps that deny Black voters an opportunity to elect representatives who will fight for them in these critical Statehouse deliberations. Voters should choose their politicians — not the other way around,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented some of the plaintiffs.

Attorneys defending Georgia have said the maps don’t discriminate by race, though there’s no dispute that the maps favor Republicans.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld redistricting for partisan purposes, but the Voting Rights Act prohibits district lines that discriminate against Black voters. Georgia’s Black population has grown 16% since 2010 while the state’s white population fell 1%.

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