Legal threats fly as lawmakers build momentum for new Georgia Senate map

By: and - November 10, 2021 1:00 am

The metro Atlanta district represented by state Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, would become 49% white under the GOP-drawn map – up from 35% white today. Au is the Senate’s only Asian American woman. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The state Senate passed its new district map with a party-line vote after a three-hour debate Tuesday that offered a preview of the likely legal arguments to come.

The 34-to-21 vote moves the new Senate districts over to the House, but the opposite chamber typically signs off on the other’s plan. The House is set to vote on its own new district lines Wednesday. Once the legislative map-making is finished, the work will move on to the contentious process of drawing borders for Georgia’s 14 congressional districts.

In the Senate, Republicans have ceded one seat out of the chamber’s 56 in hopes of holding on to the whole chamber for another decade under a political map they hope will survive a likely racial discrimination challenge in court.

This is the first redistricting and reapportionment since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ended the requirement for Justice Department oversight. The high court has barred federal courts from hearing challenges to partisan gerrymandering, but the Voting Rights Act does allow claims of intentional racial discrimination.

Macon Republican Sen. John Kennedy, who chairs the chamber’s redistricting committee, says mapmakers turned to legal counsel for consultation on how to draw lines that comply with the Voting Rights Act. He also touted the map’s districts as contiguous and compact. No Senate incumbents are paired in the map, which means drawn into the same district.

“Yes, there was a political aspect, and that’s okay because that’s part of the process,” Kennedy said to his colleagues Tuesday.

But critics pressed GOP leaders to draw more majority minority districts to reflect Georgia’s increasingly diverse population and divided electorate. They also urged Republicans to allow more time for public input on a proposal unveiled last Tuesday, which was a week before the final vote and shortly before the Atlanta Braves clinched the World Series title for the first time in 26 years.

Georgia’s white population decreased over the last decade and the state’s growth since the last official headcount is due to more people of color calling Georgia home.

At the time of the 2020 U.S. Census, the state’s white residents represented about 52% of the population. Last year, the white lawmakers made up more than two-thirds of the Georgia General Assembly.

“This map takes pains to ensure white minority rule,” said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat who had a lead role in developing the Democrats’ alternative map. “The Republican party has become more and more enamored of tactics that enable minority rule and these districts are another example.”

Specifically, Democrats criticized changes to districts in Henry County creating safer territory for McDonough Republican Sen. Brian Strickland, who was narrowly reelected last year, and changes to a Fulton County seat that set up the Senate’s only Asian American woman, Johns Creek Democrat Sen. Michelle Au, for a tough reelection bid next year.

The district represented by Au, who was elected to the Senate last year, would go from one that voted 59% for President Joe Biden last year to one that went nearly 52% for former President Donald Trump. The makeup of the new district, which would now reach into Forsyth County, would also become nearly half white, up from about 35% now.

In a speech, Au attributed her presence in the Senate chamber to the state’s growing diversity.

“The Republican map under consideration does not add even a single majority minority district over the total we’ve had for the past decade. It’s as if the huge population growth we’ve seen consisting essentially entirely of Georgians of color has been rendered invisible,” Au said.

Longtime Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat, also criticized changes made to his district that slightly shrunk the total Black population, which he blamed partly on the ripples from the Henry County districts makeover.

“We cannot afford to allow you to do this to us. It ain’t gonna happen. So, you can either work at it and try to get it straight right now, or go ahead down the path you headed and we’ll see you in court,” Lucas said.

Republicans have shrugged off the criticism, often pointing to a Democratic-drawn map in 2001 that was ruled unconstitutional and reminding Democrats that some of them voted for that map two decades ago.

“The maps were found to be illegal, they were found to be unconstitutional, they were found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In fact, they’re so bad, they’re in college textbooks,” said Roswell Republican Sen. John Albers.

House vote is up next

The House’s state legislative map is poised for a full vote Wednesday after clearing two major hurdles Tuesday. 

The plan passed the House redistricting committee and the House Rules Committee largely along party lines, with Democrats asking for more time to analyze the new boundaries and Republicans arguing lawmakers already received feedback via summer meetings, online comments and a marathon public hearing held Monday, the same day the map was introduced.

The latest plan received the same overall B grade from the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project as the one proposed by the Republican caucus last week, but the new map is slightly less competitive and favors incumbents slightly more, said Karen McCown of Fair Districts Georgia, a partner of the Princeton project.

The map slated for a House vote includes seven competitive districts, down from the nine in the original Republican plan, and 45 extreme districts, up from 33, McCown said. Princeton researchers found the new map contains 109 minority districts, which include majority-minority and minority influence districts, one fewer than the previous map and two less than the current map.

A map submitted by the Democratic Caucus received the same grade with analysts pointing out similar concerns.

The House is set to convene Wednesday at 11 a.m. for a vote, and debate will be limited to two hours.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.