Judge wrestles with voting rights and ‘chaos’ in Georgia redistricting

November 10, 2021 Atlanta - Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) speaks on behalf of HB 1 EX in the House Chambers during Day 6 of the Special Session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
November 10, 2021 Atlanta - Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) speaks on behalf of HB 1 EX in the House Chambers during Day 6 of the Special Session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Ruling on Georgia maps could come soon

A federal judge appeared undecided Monday on whether Georgia’s new political maps discriminate against Black voters, and if so, whether to throw them out and delay this year’s primary election.

After six days of court hearings concluded, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones could rule as soon as next week on lawsuits seeking additional majority-Black congressional and state legislative districts in Georgia.

Jones is considering allegations that redistricting weakened representation of Black voters even as their population grew by nearly 500,000 over the last decade. Under the new maps, four of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts have a majority of nonwhite voters, the same as before redistricting.

The court battle could decide a seat in Congress. The Republican-led General Assembly in the fall reshaped a north metro Atlanta congressional district in a way that positions the GOP to win the seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, building on their current 8-6 majority among the state’s representatives.

ExploreHow redistricting reshaped Georgia politics

Attorneys defending Georgia said the new congressional and state legislative maps are fair, and any favoritism toward Republicans is caused by partisan politics rather than illegal racial discrimination.

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%.

Jones said in court that he was concerned by an election official who testified there would be “chaos” if he invalidates Georgia’s maps and delays the state’s primary election to provide time for redistricting changes.

But plaintiffs in the case told Jones that he needs to act if he decides the rights of Black voters have been infringed.

Jones said disruption is unavoidable if he delays Georgia’s primary.

“I have to accept the fact that there’s going to be some voter confusion” if he rules for the plaintiffs, Jones said. “What do I say? ‘It’s too late, sorry?’ ”

Jones also seemed sympathetic to the state’s argument that Georgia’s maps were created for political purposes, which the Supreme Court has allowed, rather than to discriminate by race.

“If the maps are drawn by those in power so they can stay in power, aren’t the maps going to reflect that?” Jones asked.

Jones’ decision was complicated by a Supreme Court order last week that reinstated congressional maps in Alabama that a federal court had found diluted representation of Black voters.

Two justices in the court’s 5-4 conservative majority wrote that it was too late to alter districts before Alabama’s primary election, which is scheduled for May 24, the same day as Georgia’s primary.

Sophia Lakin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the judge that Black voters in Georgia are entitled to relief from the court.

“What we have are Black populations growing explosively while Black-majority districts have flatlined,” Lakin said. “Black Georgians have been, and continue to be, underrepresented in Georgia elected office.”

Bryan Tyson, an attorney defending Georgia, said legislators didn’t discriminate against anyone during the fall’s special session, when they passed new congressional and state legislative maps for the next decade.

“It’s more complicated than, ‘There are more people and therefore there should be more districts,’ ” Tyson said. “The Voting Rights Act is far too important of a law for it to be used for partisan purposes. We’re in a partisan situation, not a racial situation.”

Delays caused by the coronavirus and Georgia officials left little time for court intervention on redistricting before this year’s primary.

Results of the 2020 census weren’t released until August, and the General Assembly didn’t convene for a special redistricting session until November. Then Gov. Brian Kemp waited 38 days, until Dec. 30, before signing redistricting bills into law.

The first lawsuits opposing Georgia’s redistricting were filed within hours after Kemp signed them. The complaints were filed by a variety of civil rights, religious and political groups.

Besides seeking an additional majority-Black congressional district, the lawsuits are also pursuing at least three more majority-Black state Senate districts and four more state House districts.

Jones has broad authority to overturn redistricting proposals or change dates surrounding the primary election, but no matter what he decides, his decision will likely be appealed.