Georgia's Republican-run legislature has passed new maps for Congress, the state Senate, and the state House after a federal court struck down the GOP's existing districts in October for violating the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Black voters.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is likely to sign these maps into law by Friday's court-imposed deadline. (A larger version of the congressional map, which is shown at the top of this post, can be found here.)
However, there's a strong chance that the court overseeing the challenge to Georgia's districts will conclude that Republican lawmakers failed to comply with its order. That, in turn, could tee up a Supreme Court case with the potential to weaken the VRA and undermine minority representation nationwide.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones had ordered the state to create eight new majority-Black districts to remedy its violations of the VRA: one for Congress, two for the state Senate, and five for the state House. But while Republicans adopted several new majority-Black districts—which would likely elect Black Democrats—they made several other Democratic districts strongly Republican to mitigate their expected losses. The GOP also declined to redraw some of the legislative districts covered by the court's order.
As a result, even though Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020, Donald Trump would have carried a 9-5 majority of congressional seats, a 33-23 majority of state Senate seats, and a 95-85 majority of state House seats under the new maps. Democrats could win majorities in only the most implausible of landslides.
Jones will hold a hearing on Dec. 20 to address any objections to the maps, and there's a good chance he'll take issue with the GOP's approach. In particular, when Jones issued his ruling striking down the previous set of maps, he issued a direct warning to Republicans.
"The State cannot remedy the [Voting Rights Act] violations described herein by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere in the plans," he wrote. Yet that's precisely what the GOP did, even though one redistricting expert told lawmakers that their new maps would likely still violate the VRA.
In a minority opportunity district, no single minority group makes up a majority of voters. However, thanks to "crossover" support from other groups, including white voters, a minority group can nonetheless elect its preferred candidate.
A perfect example is the 7th Congressional District in Atlanta's northeastern suburbs, which is one of the most diverse districts in the country and is now the centerpiece of the GOP's new gerrymander. Under the now-invalid map, its adult population was 33% white, 30% Black, 21% Latino, and 16% Asian American. Yet, even though Black voters did not make up a majority, they were still able to elect their candidate of choice in 2022, Rep. Lucy McBath, a Black Democrat.
But despite Jones' admonition, Republicans disassembled McBath's district, making it the second cycle in a row in which they've targeted her in redistricting.
The GOP nominally complied with the court's directive to create a new majority-Black district by drawing a new 6th District in Atlanta's western suburbs that is 52% Black and would have backed Joe Biden 74-25, according to Dave's Redistricting App.
But Republicans simultaneously dismantled the old 7th District, splitting it up into five new districts. The new 7th would be two-thirds white and would have supported Donald Trump by a 59-40 margin, making it unwinnable for McBath or any other Democrat. (A spokesperson for McBath said the congresswoman would wait until the ongoing litigation is resolved before announcing her reelection plans for 2024.)
Republicans also tried to hide their noncompliance by renumbering three districts. A population analysis by Daily Kos Elections shows that the new 6th mostly corresponds to Democratic Rep. David Scott's old 13th, which was already majority-Black; the new 7th overlaps heavily with the old 6th held by GOP Rep. Rich McCormick; and the largest portion of the new 13th comes from McBath's old 7th.
Republicans have claimed that Jones' prohibition on eliminating existing minority opportunity districts implicated only majority-Black districts, but that conflicts with precedent from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Georgia. In a 1990 decision that specifically addressed whether Black and Latino voters can qualify for VRA protection together as a multiracial coalition, the 11th Circuit ruled that they can "if they can establish that they behave in a politically cohesive manner."
A Harvard Law School analysis of recent elections in the area found that voters from different minority groups do in fact vote similarly in general elections. The study concluded that in Gwinnett County (where the current 7th District is based), white voters heavily support Republican candidates, while Black, Latino, and Asian American voters strongly favor Democrats. These minority groups could qualify for VRA protection if plaintiffs can show that they vote cohesively through further analysis that includes voting patterns in primary elections.
Other appeals courts have reached similar conclusions about coalition districts, though one circuit has ruled they aren't protected by the Voting Rights Act. However, the Supreme Court has not definitively settled the matter, and both the Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit have shifted far to the right since those earlier rulings on coalition districts, thanks to Trump's appointments.
So even if Jones determines that Republicans disregarded his instructions regarding minority opportunity districts, the courts above him could conclude that such districts lack legal protection. That would not only free Georgia Republicans to shred McBath's district and others like it, but also allow their counterparts in other states to do the same.
Delay also benefits Republicans since the Supreme Court has frequently blocked lower courts from imposing new maps that could cost Republicans seats by saying that it's too close to an election to make changes. Jones is mindful of this, however, and has set an accelerated timetable for determining whether the new maps comply with the VRA. Whatever he decides, though, further appeals are all but certain.