Republicans who control the Georgia Legislature finalized a new congressional map Thursday that ensures their party’s dominance of state politics and for now dashes Democrats’ hopes of adding an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Critics of the court-ordered map, approved in a special legislative session, say it contradicts parts of a federal judge’s order to strengthen black political power in this swing state and foresee additional legal challenges even before the final vote.
Republicans defended the map as fully compliant with the order issued in October by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones after he found the state’s existing district lines violated the Voting Rights Act. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign the new map — and two legislative maps that preserve GOP majorities in the House and Senate — into law by a court-imposed deadline Friday.
Politicians in Washington are closely watching redistricting moves in Georgia and several other states across the country because those maps could determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives after next year’s election. Republicans currently have a slim majority in the House.
Georgia’s new congressional map complies with Jones’ order to create an additional majority-black district, but maintains the GOP’s 9-5 advantage in the U.S. House delegation. The map targets Democrat Lucy McBath’s Atlanta district, moving it further into Republican territory.
“This is a fair map for the people of Georgia,” Republican state Rep. Matt Reeves said Thursday, shortly before the state House voted 98-71 to approve the congressional plan, the final step before sending it to Kemp’s desk.
But Democratic Rep. Sam Park said the new map represented open defiance of Jones’ order and described it as a reminder of the refusal of some Republicans to accept the outcome of the 2020 election.
“It’s clear that the primary goal of the Republican Party is to retain power at all costs,” he said.
Jones, who will determine whether the new lines comply with his order, has scheduled a hearing on the maps for Dec. 20.
The congressional map approved in Georgia creates a new majority-black congressional district in the western Atlanta metropolitan area, as ordered by Jones. But it dramatically changes the multiracial district held by McBath, a black congresswoman who rose to prominence as a gun safety advocate.
Critics accused Georgia officials of following the example of Alabama, where Republicans who control the state legislature initially ignored a federal court mandate — upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — to create a second majority black congressional district or “something pretty close to him’ for compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
(The high-profile confrontation ended with a federal court creating a new Alabama map that contained two districts with significant black voting-age populations. The new lines will be in effect for the 2024 election. But Alabama officials have vowed to keep fighting with the use of the card in future elections.)
Democrats see a parallel in Georgia.
Georgia’s maps “were arrogantly drawn to avoid accountability for apparently clear and intentional violations of the Voting Rights Act and to make fair and lawful representation of the people of the state impossible,” Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney general who chaired the National Democratic Party’s Redistricting Committee, it said in a statement this week.
He accused Georgia GOP lawmakers of using “decades-old tactics” of “ignoring the courts to impose discriminatory policies on people.”
Georgia Rep. Rob Leverett, a Republican who chairs a House redistricting committee, said Thursday it was a “low blow” for critics of the map to compare the state’s actions to those of lawmakers in neighboring Alabama.
“We haven’t been poking our noses” at the judge, Leverett said.
The controversy surrounding Georgia’s maps comes amid a series of new legal challenges — and some setbacks in recent weeks for voting rights groups and Democrats — over redistricting.
Late last month, for example, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that private individuals cannot file lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Lawsuits from private citizens and interest groups helped force the government to comply with the landmark civil rights law, and the 8th Circuit’s ruling contradicted decades of case law.
The 8th Circuit upheld a 2022 ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge in Arkansas that only the U.S. Department of Justice can bring Section 2 lawsuits.
The vast majority of cases brought under the Voting Rights Act are brought by private plaintiffs, with the Justice Department facing strained resources and other considerations that limit the number of such cases it brings to at most a few each year .
The matter is expected to reach the US Supreme Court for resolution. Currently, the ruling only applies to the seven states under the 8th Circuit’s jurisdiction.
But Republican state officials in Louisiana — now ordered by a federal court to draw a new congressional map that creates a second majority-black district by Jan. 30 — have asked another appeals court, the 5th U.S. Circuit, to consider whether lawsuits under the Act for the voting rights of the private plaintiffs should be disposed of in their state, and others covered by this court.
That’s a result sought by conservative groups, which praised the 8th Circuit’s ruling, concluding that Congress did not expressly allow the so-called private right of action in the text of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 or in subsequent updates to the law.
“It’s never too late to do something right,” Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative Fair Elections Project, told CNN. “Congress knows how to create a private right of action, and it didn’t do it here.”
Meanwhile, Georgia’s redrawn congressional lines — along with an ongoing legal battle over a map governing county seats in Galveston, Texas — could spark new legal disputes over the future of multiracial coalition districts.
In his decision ordering the creation of an additional majority-black congressional district in Georgia, Jones wrote that the violation of the Voting Rights Act he found could not be corrected “by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere” in the state.
McBath, for example, was elected last year from a district where blacks, Asians and Hispanics collectively make up the majority of voters, but no single racial or ethnic group predominates. That district will no longer exist under the map approved Thursday.
Overall, Georgia’s new congressional map creates four black-majority districts from two and reduces multiracial districts from three to one. That leaves nine white-majority districts in place that are likely to hold the current number of Republican seats, given the state’s voting patterns.
Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist and redistricting expert, said the map appeared to contradict Jones’ warning to lawmakers against eliminating so-called minority opportunity districts.
He said that could prove risky for Republicans who control the Georgia General Assembly because it could prompt Jones to order a special master to create new maps not only for U.S. House seats but also for legislative districts. , which are now drawn in a way that largely protects sitting state legislatures.
A special master won’t necessarily “pay attention to where the incumbents live,” he said. “That would make a number of Republicans unhappy.”
Future legal challenges to Georgia’s new map may turn on whether minority-majority districts like the one McBath currently represents have the same legal protections under the Voting Rights Act as those where one racial group forms the majority.
Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, argued that multiracial redistricting does not violate the Voting Rights Act.
“I think Georgia took the right approach here,” he said, noting the four majority-black congressional districts in the new map, including one specifically mandated by Jones.
“What the state is doing now is following the letter of what Judge Jones ordered them to do,” Kincaid said. “The fact that the plaintiffs are not happy about this shows that they are not suing to create more majority-black districts.”
“They’re suing to create more Democratic districts,” he said, “and the Voting Rights Act is not a vehicle for trying to get the federal courts to do partisan gerrymandering in your favor.”
Park, a Democratic lawmaker from Georgia, said Thursday that by cracking down on multiracial districts, Republicans are trying to lay the groundwork “to narrow the protections of the Voting Rights Act.”
The GOP says “multiracial coalitions can and should be divided and conquered,” Park said. “What a shame.”
CNN’s Diane Gallagher contributed to this report.