An ongoing trial will determine whether Georgia’s redrawn districts allow adequate political representation for Black voters, a question that could result in dramatic changes before next year’s elections.
The decision will be up to a federal judge who is considering allegations that Republicans’ redistricting of the state two years ago illegally weakened Black voting power. The trial began Tuesday and is scheduled to last two weeks.
Democrats stand to benefit if the plaintiffs win the case and the judge orders additional majority-Black districts. Black voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, while a majority of white voters back Republicans.
Battle lines drawn
The Republican majority in the Georgia General Assembly redistricted the state in November 2021, a once-a-decade requirement after the census to ensure each seat in Congress, the state House and the state Senate has roughly the same number of residents.
Mapmakers working with Republican legislators used computer programs to create districts that include enough conservative, mostly white voters to assure election of a majority of GOP candidates.
Redistricting for partisan advantage is allowed, but the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides protections for Black voters.
Several civil rights organizations, churches and individual voters immediately sued over the maps, alleging that they illegally weakened the ability of Black voters to elect their candidates because Republicans drew too many districts with white majorities. That lawsuit led to the case that is now being argued before U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in federal court in Atlanta.
Seats at stake
Democrats hope to regain a seat in Congress that Republicans took over during redistricting: the 6th Congressional District, which was previously held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black.
The new 6th District was reshaped so it included more Republican-leaning, heavily white areas in Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth counties.
After redistricting made the previously competitive district more Republican, Rich McCormick won election last year with 62% of the vote. McBath ran and won in the neighboring 7th District, ousting her Democratic colleague in the U.S. House, Carolyn Bourdeaux.
Republicans currently hold a 9-5 advantage in Georgia’s U.S. House seats; before redistricting, the GOP held an 8-6 advantage.
The Republican majority also used redistricting to safeguard its control of the General Assembly. Republicans hold a 33-23 lead in the state Senate and have a 102-78 advantage in the state House.
Even if the judge throws out Georgia’s political maps, Republicans will almost certainly retain their majorities after next year’s elections because there aren’t enough districts being contested to threaten their control.
Plaintiffs in the case are arguing that population growth among Black Georgians justifies creating additional majority-Black districts: one in Congress, three in the state Senate and five in the state House.
Georgia’s Black population, including those who identify as Black and at least one other race, increased by 484,000 in the decade before 2020, while the state’s white-only population declined by 52,000, according to the U.S. census. Black residents account for 33% of Georgia’s population. Each congressional seat has about 765,000 residents.
Georgia is one of several states tangled in court cases over redistricting — legal disputes with the potential to affect dozens of seats in Congress. Republicans currently hold a 222-212 majority in the U.S. House.
The most closely watched redistricting fight is in Alabama, where the state Legislature defied a court order to draw an additional congressional district where Black residents can at least come close to a majority.
Alabama is now appealing its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court previously upheld the Voting Rights Act in a June case involving Alabama’s districts.
A court in Florida also recently ruled that the Republican-led Legislature diluted Black voting power. Similar cases are pending in states including Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alabama case left in place the Voting Rights Act’s framework for the courts to evaluate discrimination claims in redistricting cases.
Plaintiffs in the Georgia case must prove that Black voters are large enough and compact enough to constitute a majority in a new district, that Black voters tend to vote similarly, and that white voters vote as a bloc to defeat Black voters’ preferred candidates.
Jones, who was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, will also consider several other factors, including Georgia’s history of discrimination, racially polarized voting patterns, racial appeals in campaigns and the extent to which Black candidates have won elections.
Jones indicated in a previous ruling that the the plaintiffs were “substantially likely” to prove violations of the Voting Rights Act, but he also wrote that his final decision would depend on the merits presented during the trial.
If Jones rules that Georgia’s maps are invalid, the Georgia General Assembly would likely have to redraw the state’s districts during a special session this fall.