Opponents of Georgia’s Republican-drawn congressional districts told a judge Monday that new political boundaries weaken representation of Black voters, whose population grew by nearly 500,000 over the past decade.
But defenders of the maps argued that the changes, designed to gain Republicans a seat in Congress in this year’s elections, don’t discriminate based on race or violate the Voting Rights Act.
At stake is the future of Georgia’s representation in Congress, where Republicans currently hold an 8-6 advantage over Democrats. During redistricting in the fall, the General Assembly reshaped district boundaries in an effort to flip a seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath.
Credit: Mark Niesse
Credit: Mark Niesse
Presiding over a courtroom crowded by more than 30 lawyers, the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Steve Jones to throw out Georgia’s maps before the May 24 primary election.
“I’m going to have to make a very quick decision in the case,” Jones said in court Monday, the first of six days of scheduled hearings.
The lawsuit alleges that Georgia’s maps reduce the voting strength of Black voters, who now make up 33% of the state’s population. Just like before redistricting, four of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts have Black majorities.
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%.
An attorney for the state, Bryan Tyson, asked the judge not to second-guess the General Assembly, comparing the plaintiffs to Georgia football fans calling for the replacement of quarterback Stetson Bennett before the university’s national championship win.
“Plaintiffs ask you to short-circuit that process and join them in the armchair, yelling at (head coach) Kirby Smart to pull Stetson Bennett and replace him with (backup quarterback) J.T. Daniels,” Tyson said. “But the Legislature watched that film. They knew the plays. They understand this state.”
The first witness in the case said it would be simple to create an additional majority Black congressional district in Georgia.
“It basically draws itself. It was that easy,” said William Cooper, a demographer and expert for the plaintiffs.
Cooper said Georgia lawmakers packed the 13th Congressional District south of Atlanta with Black voters, reducing African American voting strength in the 6th District, which includes parts of Cobb County and surrounding areas.
Under Georgia’s new congressional map, the Black citizen voting age population makes up 67% of the 13th District and just 10% of the 6th District. After redistricting, McBath announced she would run for office this year in the 7th District rather than the 6th.
“There’s no reason to have a district that’s as high as 65% Black in metro Atlanta,” Cooper testified.
Cooper proposed a redrawn map that would give the 6th District a 51% Black majority among its citizen voting age population. Cooper’s map would move the district south, from Kennesaw State University to Douglas and Fulton counties.
During cross-examination, Tyson suggested that Cooper’s proposal was less compact and less representative of the community.
“The divisions of Cobb, Fayette and Newton counties do not make sense as part of normal redistricting principles, and I can only conclude that the drawing of this district (is) in service of some kind of specific goal,” Gina Wright, executive director for the Georgia Reapportionment Office, wrote in a court filing.
Outside Georgia, courts have recently invalidated Republican-drawn congressional maps in other states.
A federal court ruled that the Alabama Legislature violated the Voting Rights Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinstated Alabama’s maps while the case moves through the appeals process. In North Carolina, the state Supreme Court ruled that maps illegally favored Republicans.
Jones is presiding over three lawsuits opposing Georgia’s congressional and state legislative redistricting plans, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on Dec. 30. The complaints were filed by a variety of civil rights, religious and political groups.
After the hearings conclude, Jones could issue a ruling within days.
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