Power and representation at stake in Georgia redistricting trial

When Georgia’s political maps are put on trial next week in a 19th-floor federal courtroom, a judge will decide a case that could alter the balance of power in Congress and the state Capitol.

Democrats hope to gain a seat in the closely divided U.S. House if the judge rules that the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly discriminated against Black voters during redistricting two years ago. Political control of several state House and Senate districts could also shift toward Democrats.

The case focuses on the fundamentals of representation for Black Georgians, who overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. A majority of white people generally vote for Republicans in Georgia.

Though the state’s Black population grew by nearly half a million over the past decade and the white population slightly declined, Republicans redrew political lines in a way that resulted in their party gaining a congressional seat north of Atlanta that was previously held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black.

They did so by adding more white, conservative voters to the district, making it more likely to elect a Republican to Congress.

Even before the two-week trial begins Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones has indicated that the plaintiffs, including civil rights and religious groups, have a strong case to throw out Georgia’s redistricting.

Jones wrote in a previous ruling that the plaintiffs are “substantially likely” to prove violations of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was designed to protect representation of Black voters. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling recently upheld the Voting Rights Act in a similar case in Alabama.

Court battles over redistricting — in states including Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Texas — could reshape many districts heading into next year’s elections, said John Bisognano, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He said up to 27 congressional districts could be changed across the country. Republicans currently hold a 222-212 majority in the U.S. House.



“Georgia truly does represent the tip of the spear on these cases,” Bisognano said. “This is about Black voters in Georgia getting the representation that they deserve. There’s no question that the breakdown of the U.S. House is on the line.”

Defenders of Georgia’s maps will argue in court that there’s insufficient evidence to show discrimination against Black voters and that congressional districts shouldn’t now be redrawn primarily based on race, according to court filings.

State Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said legislative leaders crafted Georgia’s districts after holding multiple public meetings across the state to hear from residents. Those public hearings were before the GOP maps were released, though.

“Redistricting can be challenging, and that’s why there was a robust outreach and engagement process,” said Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega. “The Joint Committee on Redistricting traveled all over the state, from Dalton to Brunswick, gathering input from the communities we serve and elected officials. I am proud of the work that went into the finished product.”

The Supreme Court’s unexpected 5-4 decision to leave the Voting Rights Act intact this summer reverberated in Georgia and across the country, strengthening the possibility that states’ maps could be thrown out if they lack enough districts to give Black voters adequate opportunities to elect their preferred candidates.

Before redistricting, Black voters were able to elect six Democratic congressional candidates. After redistricting, they were only able to elect five candidates of their choice.

The Republican majority in Georgia’s congressional delegation increased from 8-6 to 9-5 after redistricting and last year’s elections.

Four of the state’s 14 congressional districts have a majority of nonwhite voters, the same as before redistricting, despite increases in Georgia’s Black population, which now makes up 33% of the state’s residents, according to the U.S. census.

“This is about the bones of our democracy. It might just look like lines on a map, but it has very significant implications to the future of this state,” said Rahul Garabadu, a voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which is representing plaintiffs contesting state House and Senate districts.

While Georgia is narrowly divided in statewide races, with Democrats winning recent presidential and U.S. Senate elections, Republicans continue to dominate a majority of district races because of how maps are drawn.



During redistricting, the GOP majority created districts that lean Republican or Democratic, using computers to evaluate voters’ preferences and draw lines that preserved their political power. In the General Assembly, the Republican Party kept a 57% majority but lost two seats in the state House and one seat in the state Senate.

Redistricting court cases across the country are an opportunity for Democrats to change the political landscape, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor who wrote the book “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.”

“If Democrats get everything they dream of, then as a result of these remaps, it might shift control of the U.S. House,” Bullock said. “It’s fascinating.”

Still, the outcome of legal wrangling is uncertain, even if the plaintiffs win and the General Assembly is forced into a special legislative session this fall to redo the state’s political maps.

In Alabama, for example, state legislators passed new plans that failed to create a second majority-Black congressional district even after the Supreme Court found a violation of the Voting Rights Act. That case is now back in an Alabama court, which hasn’t yet ruled.

And in Jones’ previous ruling in February 2022, when he found that the plaintiffs had satisfied many of the factors required to prove their case, he also wrote that his decision at the time “should not be viewed as an indication of how the court will ultimately rule on the merits at trial.”

Jones, who was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, left Georgia’s Republican-drawn maps in place in 2022 because it was too close to primary elections to make court-ordered changes.

What happens in court could have a far-reaching impact on representation and decisions on topics such as guns, education and climate change, said state Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta.

“If districts have been drawn to predetermine an outcome for one side or the other, that ends up being the most important factor in any policy decision,” Parent said. “The maps were unfair. They minimized the voices of Democratic-leaning voters and voters of color in an illegal and unconstitutional way.”

The National Republican Redistricting Trust, an organization that supports the Republican Party’s redistricting efforts, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

The trial will include an estimated nine days of arguments and testimony from dozens of witnesses, from Black church leaders to mapmaking experts. Potential witnesses include Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia; employees in Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office; former Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter; and Republican Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy.

Republicans say Georgia’s maps should be left in place after the complicated and difficult process in 2021 of dividing the state into 14 congressional, 180 state House and 56 state Senate districts.

Senate Redistricting Chairwoman Shelly Echols said legislators listened to the needs of Georgia communities before making maps.

“I am confident that the hard work of the General Assembly resulted in legal and fair representation,” said Echols, a Republican from Gainesville who was elected after the redistricting process.

But critics of Georgia’s maps say they will likely fail the legal tests laid out by the courts, which include whether there are enough Black voters to constitute an additional district and evidence that bloc voting by the white majority denies the minority’s ability to elect its preferred candidates.

“The state is going to argue that polarization has nothing to do with race and that it’s just politics. But the courts have rejected that argument time and again,” said Bryan Sells, an Atlanta voting rights attorney who isn’t involved in the case. “It’s not just politics. Race plays a huge factor in the way people vote.”

Republicans won the last two rounds of redistricting.

Twenty years ago, when Democrats were in charge, the courts struck down their maps and Republicans took power in elections soon afterward. Then after redistricting in 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the Republican maps, heading off a court challenge.

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by removing requirements that Georgia and other states with a history of discrimination obtain federal approval before making changes to voting practices. The Supreme Court also ruled in 2019 that partisan gerrymandering — redistricting that benefits the majority political party — wasn’t subject to federal court review.

With less federal oversight, the latest round of redistricting battles are “sort of the Wild West,” said Kareem Clayton, senior director for voting and representation for the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting advocacy organization.

“The partisan margins are tight, and in a polarized climate, every case and every district is an important district,” Clayton said. “These lawsuits are focused on not allowing people, regardless of party, to ignore the political interests of African Americans. Manipulation of lines shouldn’t consistently keep you from electing your preferred candidate.”

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