Sen. John Kennedy, who served as chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, promotes the GOP map during the 2021 special session. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (file photo)
A federal trial that could recontour the political landscape in Georgia ahead of next year’s congressional and legislative races started Tuesday.
The complex trial, which is expected to last through next week, focuses on a trio of challenges targeting the state’s congressional map – which helped Republicans gain a U.S. House seat last year – as well as district lines carving up the state Senate and House of Representatives.
The lawsuits all argue the maps drawn during a special session in late 2021 violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court kept intact with its surprise ruling against Alabama’s maps this summer. This decades-old provision bars practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race.
“The Voting Rights Act was designed for a case like this one,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, interim co-director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.
District Judge Steve C. Jones is presiding over the trial in the same 19th floor courtroom that has been the setting for the push by some defendants in the 2020 election interference case to have their trial moved from Fulton County to federal court.
If Jones finds that state lawmakers violated the Voting Rights Act, the ruling could lead to Democratic gains at the ballot box next year – including one of Georgia’s 14 U.S. House seats and multiple legislative seats.
Lin Lakin and other attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that Black voters have not seen their political representation grow despite jumps in the state’s overall Black population.
The number of Black Georgians grew by about 484,000 people since 2010, with 33% of the state now identifying as Black. The number of white Georgians dropped by 52,000 over the last decade.
To buttress their case, the ACLU offered up an expert Tuesday who recently testified in the Alabama redistricting case. William S. Cooper, a private consultant based in Virginia, said Tuesday that the number of majority Black state House and Senate districts has been largely stagnant since 2006.
In the House, two new Black majority districts were created in 2021, bringing the total number to 49 districts – up slightly from 45 districts in 2006. No new majority Black Senate districts were created. Cooper called it “baffling.”
The state, though, is defending the maps as being the product of a political process that protected incumbents and the GOP majority.
Bryan Tyson, who is serving as special assistant attorney general, argued Black Georgians have a shot at voting for their preferred candidates, pointing to recent election cycles. Political losers are coming up short because of partisanship, candidate quality or other factors, he said.
“They are not losing on account of race or color,” he said.
Tyson evoked the statewide wins of U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and President Joe Biden and pointed to U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black and who won in the racially diverse 7th District that includes Gwinnett County. McBath of Marietta had represented the 6th District, which was drawn in 2021 to favor a GOP candidate, before challenging fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.
Tyson argued political maps should be about creating equal opportunities, regardless of race, and said the plaintiffs’ alternative maps have “all the hallmarks of a racial gerrymander.”
Jones pressed Cooper on whether race predominated in the alternate maps. Cooper testified that he considered an array of factors but did not set out to draw a certain number of new majority Black districts.
The judge concluded in an order early last year that the plaintiffs are “substantially likely” to succeed at showing new majority Black districts can be drawn but said it was too close to the midterm election to make any changes. The question is now set to be fully explored during the two-week trial.
On the same day Georgia’s trial began a three-judge panel in Alabama rejected its Legislature’s latest attempt at creating a congressional map and ordered a third party to draw up a new one.
In Georgia, the ACLU is representing the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in a case challenging the legislative maps, arguing several more majority Black districts could have been drawn. Other plaintiffs include the Sixth District of the African Episcopal Church and four Black voters who live in McDonough, Thomasville, Wrens and Tyrone.
Another challenge being heard takes aim at the congressional map. It was filed by a group of Black voters, including three in Cobb County who are now represented by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and another who says his district, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott, has been “packed” with Black voters.
The third case was brought by another group of Black voters from some of the areas in the state’s Black Belt where it’s being argued that more majority Black legislative districts could be created.
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