Thrown out: What went wrong for the GOP in Georgia’s redistricting

How Republicans’ redrawn political maps failed
The political maps that the Republican-led General Assembly drew in November 2021 were rejected last month by a federal judge who found that they weakened the voting power of Black Georgians in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Legislators will return to the Georgia Capitol on Nov. 29 to draw new maps. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The political maps that the Republican-led General Assembly drew in November 2021 were rejected last month by a federal judge who found that they weakened the voting power of Black Georgians in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Legislators will return to the Georgia Capitol on Nov. 29 to draw new maps. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

When Georgia Republicans redistricted the state two years ago, they thought their political maps would survive for the next decade.

After all, drawing districts for partisan advantage is allowed as long as they don’t discriminate based on race, and GOP lawmakers tried to avoid going too far.

But the Republican strategy failed to hold up in court.

A federal judge ruled last month that Georgia’s maps illegally weakened the electoral power of Black voters, sending legislators back to the drawing board for a special session at the state Capitol on Nov. 29.

“When we redrew the maps, everything was pretty acceptable,” said Dewayne Hill, a former Republican state representative from Ringgold who didn’t seek reelection last year. “You have a liberal judge that shaves it one way. He has the power and authority to do that, just like the majority has the power and ability to redraw the lines when they feel like there’s a need.”

The court’s ruling found that Georgia lawmakers denied Black residents adequate opportunities for representation.

Black residents accounted for nearly half of Georgia’s population growth since 2010, but state legislators didn’t create any new majority-Black districts in their 2021 maps.

Instead, the Republican-controlled General Assembly designed congressional districts in a way that virtually assured them of picking up a U.S. House seat while crafting state House and Senate boundaries that protected their majority.

House Democratic Leader James Beverly of Macon said there were “so many ways” Republican leaders went wrong when drawing the 2021 maps.

“Political power can be dangerous,” Beverly said. “And when you think ‘I’m just going to do what I want do and there are no consequences,’ that’s not true. In the political world, there are consequences.”

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Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist and author of the book “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America,” said state Republican leaders’ moderate approach was a better strategy than some other Southern states.

“They did operate with some more restraint than what Republicans did in Texas and Florida,” he said.

In Florida, for example, the Republican-controlled Legislature dissolved a majority-Black congressional district. Florida’s maps are also being challenged in court.

“It’s a tightrope,” said Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb County Republican Party chairman who is now a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “The norm is lawsuits over our districts every 10 years. The norm is not that the districts sail on through without legal challenges or problems.”

When Democrats were in charge of the General Assembly 20 years ago, the courts overturned their gerrymandered maps, and Republicans took over the Senate in 2002 and the House in 2004.

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Credit: University of Georgia

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Credit: University of Georgia

The legal landscape for Republicans appeared more predictable in 2021, before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act in an Alabama redistricting case in June.

That decision by the high court, with a majority nominated by Republican presidents, led to the ruling last month on Georgia’s maps by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, a nominee of President Barack Obama’s.

Bullock said it’s possible that state Republican lawmakers were banking on a conservative U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.

“That was probably part of the thinking — as long as you don’t do anything completely outrageous, then you’re going to get a pass,” he said.

Jones has ordered state legislators to create a fifth majority-Black congressional district, located in west metro Atlanta, to ensure adequate representation that reflects population growth during the past decade. Currently, there are four predominantly Black districts in Georgia.

Jones also ordered two more state Senate districts and five more state House districts with Black majorities in the Atlanta and Macon areas.

Beverly said Jones’ ruling directs the state to create maps that are fair. Beverly’s is one of the districts that Jones tasked lawmakers to focus on when drawing the new lines later this month.

“Based on what he said and what we see, the trends in Georgia have changed. Georgia has drastically changed. The districts should reflect that,” he said. “I sure hope my Republican colleagues will join (House Democrats) and say: ‘OK, Georgia has changed. Our maps should reflect that.’ ”

Attorneys defending Georgia’s Republican-drawn districts plan to appeal, but in the meantime, they decided not to try to stop the new maps from being drawn. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp quickly called for the special redistricting session on the day of Jones’ decision.

Republican legislative leaders declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.

House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican from Newington, previously said legislators won’t try to defy Jones’ ruling.

“At the end of the day, we’ll be at a place that Judge Jones will be able to accept,” Burns said on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ”Politically Georgia” radio show. “And also what’s best for our members and, more importantly, be impactful for constituents.”

Appeals courts will have to wrestle with whether the Voting Rights Act required another round of redistricting in Georgia, said Adam Kincaid, executive director for the National Republican Redistricting Trust, an organization that supports the GOP’s redistricting efforts.

“Georgia’s modern electoral results are full of examples of minority candidates being elected with significant support from more than just voters of their same race,” Kincaid said. “That is strong evidence that racially polarized voting no longer exists in Georgia and is exactly why there is so much legal tension.”

Before the 2021 redistricting, Republicans held an 8-6 advantage over Democrats among Georgia’s 14 seats in the U.S. House.

During redistricting, Republicans reshaped the 6th Congressional District, adding heavily conservative and white areas north of Atlanta.

As a result, Republican Rich McCormick won the seat in last year’s elections, and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Black woman who previously held the 6th District post, switched districts and ousted her Democratic colleague Carolyn Bourdeaux in the primary.

Bourdeaux said she wasn’t surprised when Jones ordered the state to draw new maps.

She said the state’s congressional districts should better reflect the results of the 2020 presidential election, when 49.5% of Georgia voters supported Democrat Joe Biden and 49.2% supported Republican Donald Trump.

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

“I think that absolutely should happen,” she said. “The state is a 50/50 state, so it should be roughly represented by seven Democrats and seven Republicans, and the districts should be drawn to produce results that are in keeping with the actual views of the population.”