House Redistricting Committee Chair Rep. Bonnie Rich speaks to fellow lawmakers after they approved new House maps in November. The governor signed the maps into law Thursday, prompting at least three legal challenges. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder (2021 file photo)
Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s new political maps into law Thursday, immediately sparking legal challenges over plans that would solidify the GOP advantage in the state legislature and congressional delegation.
Lawmakers approved the new maps along party lines during a special session last month.
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering project gave the state House map a B, the state Senate map an F and the congressional map a C, citing a lack of competitiveness and advantages to Republican candidates in each.
In Congress, Marietta Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath’s district was redrawn to be much friendlier to a Republican candidate, and she has announced plans to run instead in the neighboring 7th District, currently represented by fellow Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, though both now live beyond the newly drawn boundaries.
Whoever wins, Georgia’s congressional representation is likely to become more Republican after next year’s midterm election, with the tilt expected to increase from 8-to-6 to 9-to-5.
It’s not illegal to bolster one party’s advantage in the once-a-decade redistricting process to strengthen their party’s position, and politicians almost always do so. But drawing maps that reduce the voting power of minorities does violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, a group of organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia allege the state did just that. It was one of at least three lawsuits filed.
The ACLU’s lawsuit, which focuses on the state legislature, alleges that the state ignored the growing number of Black Georgians represented in the 2020 Census, especially to the southwest of Atlanta and near Augusta.
“In both the southern Metro Atlanta region and the Augusta region, we’ve seen explosive population growth in the Black community over the last 10 years, so the new maps have to reflect that growth,” said ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Sean Young.
“But instead, the politicians who drew the maps seem to have frozen Black political power as if it were still 2010. The mapmakers failed to create new districts that would give these new Black voters additional opportunity to elect candidates of choice.”
Georgia Democrats were quick to respond to the governor signing the maps into law, calling the maps “a slap in the face to democracy and the people of Georgia.”
“Make no mistake – the maps signed into law today are part and parcel of Georgia Republicans’ voter suppression campaign, which seeks to silence millions of Georgians’ voices for the sake of clinging to power,” said Scott Hogan, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “Republicans are terrified of Georgia voters, and they know the only way they can win is by rigging the system.”
Throughout the session, Republicans repeatedly dismissed accusations that their maps diminished the Black vote as political theater.
“The maps that the Senate has drawn comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said Suwanee Republican state Rep. Bonnie Rich, who chaired the House Redistricting Committee. “I know this because we have worked on this process together. We have engaged legal counsel, who are experts in this field. We are confident that the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act.”
The mapmakers were limited to drawing maps that include equal populations, and they prioritized respecting county and city boundaries as well as other communities of interest, GOP leaders said, and the work was made more difficult by a rapidly growing metro Atlanta combined with population shrinkage in rural Georgia.
But if the court finds the maps dilute the power of the Black vote, it will not matter whether the Republicans who held the pen had good intentions, Young said.
“Section Two was amended to prevent politicians from watering down the voting power of Black voters,” he said. “The reason the intent issue is so important is because, generally speaking, it can be more difficult to prove that politicians acted with discriminatory intent, so Section Two of the Voting Rights Act makes clear that intent need not be proven.”
The governor’s office declined to comment on the signing or the legal challenges Thursday.
In a press release, the ACLU lamented Kemp’s delay in signing the maps.
“The challenged maps were approved by the General Assembly before Thanksgiving, over a month ago, yet the governor delayed his formal signature until the last possible moment, dramatically shortening the time that courts will have to evaluate their legality before the March filing deadline for the 2022 primary elections.”
The ACLU’s challenge requests the court to prevent the state from holding elections under the new maps and set a deadline for the legislature to adopt new plans or order an interim plan for the 2022 elections.
“Generally speaking, when you’re successful in demonstrating that a map violates the Voting Rights Act, the federal court does give the legislature the first crack at fixing it,” Young said. “But if there’s not enough time for the legislature to fix it, or the legislature drags its feet, then the court steps in and draws the map.”
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