Georgia redistricting trial ends with debate over Black representation

Judge could order new political maps for Georgia
Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) speaks on behalf of HB 1 EX in the House chamber during Day 6 of a redistricting special session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta in November 2021. Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit allege that the lawmakers weakened Black voting power, in violation of the Voting Rights Act, when they redrew the state’s political maps in 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) speaks on behalf of HB 1 EX in the House chamber during Day 6 of a redistricting special session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta in November 2021. Plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit allege that the lawmakers weakened Black voting power, in violation of the Voting Rights Act, when they redrew the state’s political maps in 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

An eight-day trial over redistricting in Georgia closed Thursday with strident arguments over whether Republican state lawmakers weakened Black voting power when they redrew the state’s political maps two years ago.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs told the judge that Black voters were denied opportunities for greater representation despite sharp population growth, with districts shaped in a way that resulted in Democrats losing a seat in Congress during last year’s elections.

But the state defended its maps and said partisan politics — not race — were the reason for wins by Republicans, who hold a 9-5 advantage among Georgia’s congressional delegation and safe majorities in the General Assembly.

“This is a very important case,” said U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, who said he’d start reviewing evidence immediately and rule in the upcoming weeks. “My decision is going to have a big effect on a lot of people.”

The lawsuit by civil rights organizations, religious groups and individual voters alleges that Georgia’s redistricting violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to protect representation of Black voters.

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act in June, the plaintiffs said they proved that Black voters satisfied the law’s requirements to justify creation of new districts where they’d become a majority.

“Minority vote dilution does not need to be accompanied by pitchforks and burning crosses and literacy tests,” said Abha Khanna, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “What they want is what they’re entitled to, which is a fair chance.”

Bryan Tyson, an attorney defending the state’s redistricting, said Black candidates such as U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have won recent elections, which he said shows that Georgia’s voting system is accessible to all voters.

The outcomes of elections depends on candidates and partisanship, Tyson said, rather than race.

“It’s just party politics. Everyone makes their case to the voters, the winner comes out on top, and we move forward,” Tyson said. “... The goal is to get to a point where we’re a society that’s no longer largely fixated on race.”

Even though Black Georgians accounted for a large portion of the state’s population growth since 2010, they lost representation in Congress because of redistricting, according to the plaintiffs.

During redistricting, the Republican-controlled General Assembly reshaped the 6th Congressional District, which was previously held by U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Black woman from Cobb County, into heavily Republican and white areas to the north. The new map benefited Republicans when they won the 6th District in last year’s elections.

The plaintiffs said they fulfilled the Voting Rights Act’s requirements to evaluate discrimination claims in redistricting cases by proving that Black voters are large enough to constitute a majority in a new district, and that white voters vote as a block to defeat Black voters’ preferred candidates.

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

“It’s race that best explains the racially polarized voting patterns that we see,” said Ari Savitzky, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Black voters have been drawn into districts that will shut them out of power because of racial bloc voting.”

Tyson disagreed, telling the judge that Black voters are well-represented with five of the state’s 14 members of the U.S. House, roughly aligned with their share of the population.

White Republicans hold the other nine House seats from Georgia, a higher proportion than their 50% of the population.

“If Black and Black-preferred candidates are winning, don’t we have a system that’s equally open to all voters?” Tyson said during his closing argument.

Georgia is one of several states where redistricting cases are moving through the courts, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

After the Alabama Legislature defied a court’s order to create a second majority-Black district, or something close to it, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That case could be decided while Jones is considering the Georgia case.

If Jones rules in favor of the plaintiffs and orders new political maps — and if the Supreme Court keeps the Voting Rights Act intact — the Georgia General Assembly would likely return to the Capitol this fall for a special session.

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