Georgia GOP lawmakers push revised political maps toward passage to meet court’s looming deadline
Georgia Republican lawmakers Thursday advanced through Senate and House committees new legislative district maps after rejecting proposed maps that Democratic legislators contend better comply with a federal court order to create seven new majority Black legislative districts.
The pair of House and Senate district maps endorsed by state Republican lawmakers appear to be on the fast track to a Friday vote in the Senate and House chambers, a week ahead of a Dec. 8 deadline that U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones set for the state to have new maps ready ahead for the 2024 election.
The GOP maps were approved on Thursday along political party line votes by House and Senate redistricting committees that met on the second day of the special redistricting legislative session.
Senate and House Republicans argue that their revised legislative districts comply with the court mandate to carve out seven new majority Black legislative districts west and south of metro Atlanta and in the Macon-Bibb County area. The Democrats say they’re backing a redistricting plan that is better designed stand up to a judge’s scrutiny. If the state doesn’t adopt new maps by next week that remedy the dilution of Black voting power, the court could draw up Georgia’s new districts.
The Republican-drawn maps have been criticized by voting rights groups and Democratic legislators for shifting a large number of Black voters from predominantly Black districts to create new majority Black district boundaries.
Jones ruled last month that Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it redrew voting maps in 2021 in a way that diluted the power of Black voters. The 2021 redistricting effort followed a 2020 Census count that showed Georgia’s rapid growth over the previous decade was largely due to an influx of Black people and other minorities.
Gainesville Republican Sen. Shelly Echols, who chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, said that the revised GOP map follows the court’s order by increasing the majority Black districts from 13 to 15 through forming new districts along south metro Atlanta.
Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert said he appreciated the passionate comments made by his Democratic counterparts about the long sordid history of voter suppression that Black people have faced in Georgia. However, he said, the state has made considerable strides in removing barriers to the ballot box.
“I think we’re selling ourselves short not to acknowledge and recognize the progress that we have made as a state in working together in stopping our past practices of discrimination,” Cowsert said. “And now we are hearing today the echoes of these arguments resonate still (even though) our behavior has changed.”
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, presented at Thursday’s meeting a 56 district map that only affects the ten districts that Jones identified as being racially discriminatory to Black voters.
The Democratic Senate map creates two new majority Black districts south of Atlanta that will include nearly 150,000 Black voters who currently reside in minority Black districts.
Democrats are proposing to form a new District 16 that would encompass portions of Fayette County, south Fulton County, and northeast Coweta County along I-85. Approximately 52% of the new district’s residents would be Black voting age population, living in cities including Fairburn, Union City, and Newnan.
Democrats have also proposed creating another new district that is expected to give a slight edge of 51% to Black voters in a suburban south Atlanta district. The plan is to return the 17th district closer to the boundaries in place during the prior decade when Henry County accounted for the largest percentage of voters.
Butler said her party’s maps factored in that over the past decade a decline in Henry County’s white population coincided with a steep increase in Black residents.
Democrats propose forming the new majority Black district by shifting residents from southwest Henry into a district that includes Stockbridge, Locust Grove and Hampton, three cities along I-75. The maps would also shift all of Morgan County and part of Walton County back into a more rural district.
“It was possible to create a new majority Black district from a core of Henry County in 2021 and instead Republicans gerrymandered 19,000 Black voters from Henry into a white dominated 25th district,” Butler said.
Jones has said the revised district boundaries should reflect the state’s rising Black population and give them a fair chance of electing their preferred candidates. Democrats have long been favored by Black voters at higher rates than Republican candidates.
On Thursday, Sen. Michael Rhett, a Black Marietta Democrat first elected in 2014, said he’ll have a hard time explaining to his constituents why the Republicans’ plans call for reducing the Black population in his district from 40% to 32%. Rhett said that shrinking the Black voting bloc that low would diminish his chances of getting re-elected next year and lowers the ability of minority voters to have significant influence in other elections.
“Basically what it does mean is that the people in my district would be disenfranchised,” Rhett said at Thursday’s Senate committee meeting.
GOP map primed for House showdown
A House panel advanced that chamber’s Republican-drawn map Thursday afternoon with a 9-to-5 vote after a meeting that mostly focused on the House Democrats’ counter proposal.
Thursday’s committee vote tees up the House map for a vote by the full chamber potentially as soon as Friday.
House Minority Leader James Beverly and other Democrats argue that the House GOP’s plans will not pass muster if submitted as is to the judge.
“We have delivered a map that we are sure complies with the judge’s order. Y’all have not,” Beverly said to the committee.
Beverly said Republicans could address the problem by sacrificing a Republican incumbent south of Atlanta. But as it is, he argued the GOP map puts the entire 180-member body at risk of having the judge or a special master draw new maps that may have little regard for incumbency.
Specifically, an attorney for House Democrats, Bryan Sells, says that even though the GOP map creates the required five majority Black House districts, it dismantles two districts in metro Atlanta where coalition groups favor minority candidates.
But Republicans criticized the state House map presented by Democrats because they said it does not create five districts where more than 50% of the population is home to Black voters. One of the five districts in the Democrats’ map is just short of that threshold, but Beverly defended it as offering a Black plurality that would satisfy the judge’s order.
“In describing the remedy, (Jones) used the ‘majority Black’ terminology, but what Section 2 requires, and what would be lawful, is five additional opportunity districts,” Sells said.
Still, Rep. Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican who is chairing the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, countered that he was uneasy trying to interpret Jones’ words any other way than what showed up in the order.
“I am leery of construing a judge’s order in a way that I feel maybe could lead me to jeopardy,” Leverett said.
The Democrats’ proposal would have changed boundary lines for 23 districts, as opposed to 56 districts in the GOP map. Some voting rights advocates have criticized the Republican-drawn map for making unnecessary geographic boundary changes that were not targeted in the judge’s order to make up for political ground ceded when creating the five majority Black districts.
House Republican leaders have said they are trying to comply with the judge’s order even as they appeal the ruling.