Georgia lawmakers back at Capitol to redraw political maps to comply with Voting Rights Act
It’s back to Atlanta and back to the drawing board for Georgia legislators, who are set to gavel in for a special session Wednesday after a federal judge ruled the redistricting maps they produced in 2021 did not protect the rights of Black voters.
Lawmakers will take another crack at creating voter maps for Georgia’s 14 Congressional seats, 180 state representatives and 56 senators. What they produce will determine the state’s political balance until the next redistricting session after the 2030 U.S. Census. This time around, citizens can express their opinions on a new page of the Legislature’s website as well as read comments made by other Georgians.
The state House released its proposed boundaries Tuesday afternoon in a map that seeks to create two majority Black districts in south metro Atlanta, one in the west metro and two near Macon-Bibb County per the order of U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones last month.
In south metro Atlanta, District 117 in Henry County is set to have a Black population of about 61%, according to state numbers, with most of McDonough within its borders. District 74 including south Clayton and west Henry counties, will have a Black population of about 64% if the maps are approved. HD 117 and 74 are represented by Republican Reps. Lauren Daniel and Karen Mathiak.
In the west, boundaries for HD 64 are set to slide from west Douglas County to the southeastern part of the county and transition from 29% Black to just under 51%.
And in the Macon area, a planned new House District 149 that includes slices of Baldwin, Jones and Bibb counties clocks in at 50.98% Black, while District 145 would expand to encompass most of southwest Bibb County, as well as the southern part of Monroe County, including the city of Forsyth.
The plan reshapes boundaries across Atlanta and the core metro counties, and the modifications reverberate southeast past Bibb County into Houston, Peach and Crawford counties.
It appears to pit several incumbent lawmakers against one another, including Republican State Reps. Beth Camp of Concord and David Knight of Griffin.
The two released a joint statement in which they lamented the decision but both vowed to fight for re-election.
“I have the utmost respect for Rep. Knight and appreciate our working relationship,” said Camp. “This is an unfortunate situation, but I have faith that the best interests of all citizens of Lamar, Pike and Spalding will be served. It is my honor to represent my constituents.”
“I am saddened by the outcome of the new map which places me, along with my friend and trusted colleague Representative Beth Camp, together in the new District 135,” said Rep. Knight. “No matter the future outcome of elections, I know the constituents of Spalding, Pike, and Lamar will be well represented.”
Democratic state Reps. Teri Anulewicz and Doug Stoner, both of Smyrna, are also paired up in the proposed HD 42, Anulewicz said.
Stoner was first elected to the state House in 2002 and the Senate in 2004, but he lost his seat in 2012 after the 2010 redistricting cycle left him vulnerable to a Republican challenger. Before rejoining the House this year, Stoner dabbled in local government. He won election to the Smyrna City Council in 2015, where he served alongside Anulewicz, who was mayor pro tem.
Anulewicz stepped down in 2017 to run for the seat vacated by Rep. Stacey Evans in her bid for governor. Stoner stepped down for an unsuccessful run for the state Public Service Commission in 2018.
The state Senate’s GOP majority made its opening bid Monday with a map they say upholds the law and is fair to everyone.
“Over the past month, Senate Redistricting Chair Shelly Echols (a Republican from Gainesville) has conducted a thoughtful, inclusive and transparent redrawing process,” reads a statement from party leadership. “Her main priority has been to ensure the new plan fully complies with Judge Jones’ order while also upholding Georgia’s traditional principles.”
The maps appear to shift the districts of Sens. Elena Parent and Jaston Esteves, two prominent Atlanta Democrats, from majority white to majority Black. Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Matt Brass of of Newnan and Brian Strickland of McDonough appear poised to pick up more conservative-leaning white voters west of Atlanta.
Such a plan could comply with Judge Jones’ order while preserving the chamber’s partisan tilt – there are currently 33 Republican senators and 23 Democrats – but some observers worry a lack of competition is bad for Black voters and for democracy.
“This map demonstrates that a lot of people don’t want democracy NOR for Black voters to be able to vote effectively for candidates of THEIR choice,” said James Woodall, former president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP. “Creating safer districts for Democrats DO NOT give Black voters the relief the VRA, nor the court order, prescribes.”
Senate Democrats countered with their own map, which creates two majority Black districts south of Atlanta, one in parts of Fulton, Coweta and Fayette counties and one including all of Butts County and the western half of Henry County.
The Senate Democratic Caucus said the Republicans’ proposed map does not fix the violations Judge Jones specifies but just shuffles Black voters around.
“Senate Democrats look forward to working with their Republican colleagues to pass a map that complies with the Court’s Order and the Voting Rights Act, and provides Black voters in Georgia an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice,” the caucus said in a statement.
But with Republicans controlling both chambers and the governor’s mansion, the party can do little more than make suggestions. Jones’ order provides direction for lawmakers to create a map that complies with the law, but it’s up to legislators to come up with the solution.
While the Legislature’s decisions over the next six years will shape the lives of Georgians, it’s the shape of the state’s 14 Congressional districts that the nation will be watching during the session. Lawmakers have not yet introduced a draft Congressional map.
With the U.S. House currently controlled by a margin of just eight Republican representatives, both parties will seek every advantage in upcoming elections.
Jones found violations in several Georgia Congressional Districts.
“The Congressional seats which are I think going to get the most attention – it’s going to be really interesting to look at how the focus is on the 6th and the 7th District,” Gillespie said, “but I think the 9th, the 11th and the 14th are also going to be affected by how these lines get redrawn. I mean, it’s not going to change who holds the seat in the near term, but I think the question would be, alright, what does a redrawn 6th look like, and where are they going to get new voters for that district from?”
Perhaps the most significant change from the original round of redistricting was the 6th District, then represented by Democrat Lucy McBath. Republicans drew it to favor a conservative candidate and force McBath to run against fellow Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in the 7th District.
McBath defeated Bourdeaux in the primary and now represents the 7th District, while the current 6th District is represented by Republican Rich McCormick. The exchange reset Georgia’s Congressional partisan score to 9-5 in the GOP’s favor from 7-6.
While racial gerrymandering is not allowed, partisan gerrymandering is OK, and Republicans will likely try their best to keep that 9-5 balance while following Jones’ order to the letter.
“The challenge legally becomes when does it look like you’re packing Blacks into a district?” Gillespie said. “That’s not legally happening. You can’t all of a sudden have a contorted district that’s 80% Black, those days are long gone. That was invalidated by Shaw v. Reno in the mid-90s. So what do these reconfigured districts look like? That’s going to be the big question, but they’re going to try to do everything to try to preserve their partisan balance as much as possible.”
Still, Gillespie said Georgia is not likely to be a repeat of Alabama, where lawmakers failed to take steps to redraw their maps and the court appointed a third party to make them. And some Georgia lawmakers might be hoping a pending appeal of Jones’ order will mean they get the old maps anyway.
“I think that there is an attempt by the Republican Legislature to try to do a good faith effort to try to comply with the court order and to take a sort of a two-pronged approach by trying to appeal the whole thing to just basically reinstate the original districts,” she said. “Those are probably plan A and plan B, and I think having a special master redraw the lines is a distant plan C, and I think that their gamble is that by cooperating while still reserving the right to appeal, they will get at least something that approximates what they want.”