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Georgia GOP lawmakers steam ahead with new political maps, Dems predict collision with court review

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by Stanley Dunlap & Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder

Georgia Republican senators voted Tuesday in favor of a controversial congressional map after deflecting criticism that the redrawn districts unfairly target a Democratic congresswomen while also conflicting with a federal judge’s order directing the state to remedy voting rights violations against Black voters.

Democratic lawmakers expressed indignation on Tuesday over Republican legislators’ redistricting plans to create a new majority Black congressional district that detractors contend actually strips away minority voting power. Republican officials countered that their proposed map satisfies U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones’ order that the state redraw by Friday a revised version of its 2021 political map that includes a predominantly Black congressional district in west metro Atlanta.

 Republican Sens. Frank Ginn, John Kennedy, Steve Gooch, Billy Hickman and Mike Hodges listen to debate Tuesday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to give his stamp of approval this week for redrawn House and Senate legislative maps that GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate passed Tuesday.

The proposed congressional map would form a new 6th district of 52% Black voting age population that extends from the city of South Fulton into Cobb, Fayette, and Douglas counties. The plan also would cause a major shift in Democratic U.S. Rep Lucy McBath’s suburban Atlanta 7th District where the current minority demographic of 67% Black, Asians and Hispanics would flip to two-thirds majority white. 

The GOP’s proposed map would significantly diminish McBath’s chances for reelection without the large contingent of minorities who tend to vote for Democratic candidates living in a district that now consists primarily of Gwinnett County and a small sliver of Fulton County.

Senate Democrats said Tuesday that removing McBath’s minority opportunity district contradicts Jones’ warning against doing so in order to create a new majority Black district.

Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat, accused GOP lawmakers’ of favoring party loyalty while redrawing districts that significantly pack nearly 1.6 million voters of color into four districts of metro Atlanta.

On Tuesday, Senate Bill 3EX was passed by a party-line vote of 32-22, advancing the GOP-endorsed map to the House chamber as the legislative special session winds down.

“This map not only failed to meet the court’s order, but it furthers this body’s history of the majority party trying to desperately hold on to power to the people of Georgia,” Esteves said.  

Sen. Shelly Echols, a Gainesville Republican who chairs the Senate’s redistricting committee, acknowledged this week that the map was drawn up to help maintain Republican control in nine of the state’s 14 congressional districts. 

 Sens. Sally Harrell and Michael “Doc” Rhett, who are both Democrats, look at maps on Tuesday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The Senate bill contains language that allows the 2021 congressional map to be reinstated in time for the 2024 election if the state successfully appeals Jones’ ruling.

Jones ruled in October that the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2021 passed legislative and congressional district maps that violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voting power.

Echols disagreed that the new proposed map eliminates minority opportunity districts in a way that violates the court order.

“Judge Jones made it clear on page 510 of the order that we cannot eliminate existing minority opportunity districts in drawing the new majority Black districts,” she said. “While he doesn’t define that term, it’s clear he’s referencing two majority Black districts. District 7 was not a majority Black district in the 2021 plan and is not a majority Black district under this plan.”

“To be clear, the Voting Rights Act protects distinct racial groups, not coalitions of (ethnic) voters,” Echols added.

GOP lawmakers send House, Senate maps to governor’s desk

Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate also signed off on the other chamber’s map Tuesday. Those final votes sent the legislative maps to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk to sign or veto. 

In the House, the Senate map was bitterly debated Tuesday before passing with a 98-71 vote. Democrats accused GOP lawmakers of pushing through a map that fails to address the judge’s order.

The Senate plan adds two new majority Black districts, but Democrats have called the Republican plan a “shell game.” Rep. Saira Draper, an Atlanta Democrat, said GOP lawmakers are “shuffling around Black voters like a deck of cards” instead of complying.

“This Republican proposal, unfortunately, is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo and continue to disenfranchise Black voters,” Draper said. “In other words, the Republican proposal is a hoax.”

But her GOP colleagues countered that they did what the judge outlined as a remedy in his order. Specifically, Jones instructed lawmakers to create two additional majority Black Senate districts in south metro Atlanta and five additional majority Black House districts in south and west metro Atlanta and the Macon-Bibb County area.

Jones also included this line: “The State cannot remedy the Section 2 violations described herein by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere in the plans.”

 Rep. Rob Leverett presenting the House map last week. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Black voters in Georgia have historically backed Democratic candidates at high rates. But the remedial maps advancing through the Legislature are expected to yield minimal Democratic gains in the House and likely none in the Senate.

Today, Republicans control both chambers with a 33-23 majority in the Senate and a 102-78 lead in the House. 

Republicans have defended the maps as an attempt at complying with the order.

“It almost seems to me that the objection to this plan is that it does not, in construing the judge’s order, maximize Democratic gains,” said Rep. Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican who chairs the House redistricting committee. “But the Voting Rights Act doesn’t require that. It doesn’t protect political parties. It doesn’t try to ensure the viability or success of any party. It protects voters.”

“If we’re trying to maintain the status quo, I think we’re doing it wrong. We’re not doing it very well,” Leverett also said, pointing to the two new Black majority districts created under the new Senate map.  

The proposed House map would result in population shifts in 56 of the 180 districts while also forcing three sets of incumbent Democrats and a pair of sitting Republican legislators to face each other in upcoming elections. HB 1EX was passed by the Senate on a party-line vote of 32-21.

“In a perfect world, the House could have added five new districts without any drastic changes to the existing districts, but there was no feasible way to do that, while complying with the judge’s order,” Cornelia GOP Sen. Bo Hatchett said. “And contrary to assertions that the House was overly partisan in this component of the plan, the House did not inflict political casualties on solely the opposing party, it Inflicted damage on both parties.”

Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said Jones referred the General Assembly to plaintiffs’ experts’ plans that would have kept 86% of voters in their present district or only affected voting demographics in 25 districts. Republicans propose redrawing Parent’s district from majority white to majority Black.

A number of voting rights and redistricting organizations criticized the Republican-backed new legislative districts as partisan gerrymandering.

“This map unnecessarily disrupts Georgia voters for partisan purposes,” Parent said.

Hatchett, who is vice chairman of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, expressed confidence that the House map is in compliance with Jones’ instructions.

“There is too much at stake for us not to comply,” he said.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.