Georgia redistricting challenges protections of multiracial coalitions

Maps could launch a national court battle over Voting Rights Act
Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, and Reapportionment and Redistricting Chair Sen. Shelly Echols chat Thursday during a hearing to discuss revised Senate districts maps. (Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, and Reapportionment and Redistricting Chair Sen. Shelly Echols chat Thursday during a hearing to discuss revised Senate districts maps. (Miguel Martinez /

As soon as Georgia’s redrawn political boundaries pass this week, the new maps will likely spark court challenges that could weaken nationwide protections against districts where Black voters and other racial groups together make up a majority.

The Republican-drawn maps reduce those kinds of multiracial “coalition districts” in Georgia, instead dividing the state into Black-and-white political boundaries.

Without coalition districts, combined numbers of Black, Hispanic and Asian voters wouldn’t necessarily justify legal protections against racial discrimination under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Republican-proposed districts preserve white representation by sorting voters in a way that safeguards the GOP’s 9-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. White voters in Georgia usually support Republicans and Black voters overwhelmingly back Democrats.

The courts will wrestle with whether district lines illegally discriminate based on race or sort voters by their political preferences, which is allowed, said Doug Spencer, a University of Colorado election law professor who manages the All About Redistricting website.

“It’s a huge threat to Voting Rights Act cases because you can claim you’re doing one thing when you’re doing something else,” Spencer said. “The Supreme Court has basically said the Voting Rights Act protects minority groups from having their vote diluted. They’ve never said one way or the other whether that minority group can be a combination or not.”

Georgia’s redrawn congressional map cleared a Senate committee on a party-line vote Monday, setting up a vote in the full state Senate on Tuesday and the House soon afterward.

The proposed map might violate a ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, who decided in October that Georgia’s maps illegally weakened Black voting power. He wrote that Georgia’s existing districts couldn’t be corrected “by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere.”

An opportunity district is generally defined as an area where racial minority groups are able to elect their preferred candidates by attracting some support from white voters. Jones didn’t specify the meaning of the term in his order.

The case could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, where an adverse ruling would weaken the Voting Rights Act.

The Republican map increases the number of majority-Black congressional districts from two to four while reducing multiracial coalition districts from three to one. Meanwhile, the number of majority-white districts would remain at nine.

As a result, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other groups wouldn’t gain additional opportunities for representation in Georgia, where the state’s overall population rose by 1 million because of an increasing number of people of color since 2010 as the number of white residents declined by 52,000. National exit polls from the 2020 election found that more than 60% of Hispanic and Asian voters supported Democratic candidates.

An example of how a coalition district would be dismantled is in the Atlanta-area congressional district represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath.

Under the existing map, McBath won 61% of the vote in last year’s election in the 7th District, where no race forms more than one-third of the population in Gwinnett County and part of north Fulton County.


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Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election attorney, said the success of Black candidates in districts without a Black majority — such as McBath — shows that the Voting Rights Act’s redistricting protections aren’t needed.

“The notion that the Voting Rights Act requires another Democratic district is not the purpose of the Voting Rights Act,” Torchinsky said. McBath’s district is “probably one of a bunch of places where this question of coalition districts is going to be tested,” he said.

Advocates for Hispanic voters said they’re worried that redistricting could harm opportunities for representation of their communities.

“It is concerning that although they added a majority-Black district in Congress, the map drawers dismantled District 7 — a majority-Black-and-Hispanic district — once again targeting Lucy McBath, a member of color,” David Garcia, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said during a Senate committee hearing Monday.

Democrats fear the potential consequences of an upcoming challenge to the Voting Rights Act from Georgia.

“What voters deserve is the addition of a majority-Black district that doesn’t come at the expense of other opportunities to voters,” said Marina Jenkins, executive director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “This should not be done by dismantling other minority opportunity districts, and that’s exactly what the Georgia Legislature has put forward.”

Republicans say they complied with Jones’ order because they did add Black districts — even though they carved up multiracial districts.

“Districts composed of less than a majority of a single minority group are not ‘opportunity districts’ protected by the Voting Rights Act,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “Despite Democrats’ best efforts to the contrary, the VRA is not a vehicle for maximizing partisan political power and never has been.”

Democrats in the Georgia General Assembly say the state’s Republican majority is violating Jones’ requirement for fairer political representation.

Credit: Special

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Credit: Special

“This is going to come down to how we’re actually going to be defining ‘minority-opportunity district,’ ” said Senate Democratic Whip Harold Jones of Augusta, who is not related to Judge Jones. “Whether the assertion that a minority-opportunity district has to be majority-Black or can it be a coalition district, and I think that’s where the debate is going to have to be had.”

Georgia Republicans’ upcoming challenge to the Voting Rights Act is similar to a Texas case that’s already moving through the courts.

A panel of three Republican-appointed judges last month doubted whether a challenge to local districts in Galveston, Texas, should have been able to use “aggregation” of Black and Hispanic voters to create coalition districts. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative circuit courts in the nation, then agreed to hear the case.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta leans conservative, with seven of the 12 active judges appointed by Republican presidents, including six by Donald Trump.

The question of whether multiracial coalition districts are covered by the Voting Rights Act is unsettled among appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, making it ripe for a Republican challenge.

The Supreme Court broadly upheld the Voting Rights Act in an Alabama case this summer, but lawsuits that contest coalition districts make a different argument that could undermine the landmark civil rights law.

The high court has previously said that plaintiffs can combine minority groups under the Voting Rights Act, but they must prove that they vote together as a racial bloc.

In a 1990 case, the 11th Circuit indicated that Black and Hispanic voters could have proved vote dilution if they had demonstrated political cohesiveness, but they didn’t do so.

The General Assembly must approve new maps by a Friday deadline set by Jones, an appointee of President Barack Obama.

Then Jones will likely hold hearings to decide whether the maps complied with his order, and if not, he could appoint a special master to redo redistricting yet again.

Appeals would quickly follow, setting up high-stakes court decisions that could affect the balance of power in the U.S. House, where Republicans hold a 221-213 majority, before next year’s elections.