Thursday, February 22, 2024

Republicans in Georgia were found by a federal judge to have violated a significant civil rights law by creating voting maps that weakened the influence of Black voters. The judge ordered that new maps must be drawn before the 2024 elections to ensure equitable representation for Black residents, who constitute over a third of the state’s population.

Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia emphasized that the court would not allow unlawful redistricting plans to proceed for another election cycle. While acknowledging the progress made towards voting equality in Georgia since 1965, Judge Jones stated that the evidence presented before the court demonstrated that there is still work to be done to ensure equal openness and opportunity in the political process for all individuals.

Georgia, along with other Southern states, is among those where Republicans have faced challenges to congressional maps that have been deemed discriminatory against Black voters by federal judges. These challenges were bolstered by a surprising Supreme Court ruling in June, which upheld the use of race in redistricting, preserving a key principle of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act, a major achievement of the civil rights movement, has otherwise faced significant erosion by the court’s conservative majority in recent years.

Judge Jones has set a deadline of December 8 for the State Legislature to develop new maps. This timeline allows for the court to create an acceptable remedy if the legislature fails to produce one. During the regular redistricting process following the census, Georgia Republicans had attempted to dilute Democratic influence by dividing key voter blocs into different districts.

As a result, Judge Jones found that Georgia violated the Voting Rights Act by diminishing the power of Black voters in both the state’s congressional map and division of statehouse districts. These redistricting plans came at a time when Democrats were gaining ground in Georgia, a state that had traditionally favored Republicans. In 2020, Georgia elected a Democratic president for the first time since 1992 and two Democratic senators, ousting Republican incumbents. However, Republicans have maintained a strong control over state government.

Black voters played a pivotal role in the state’s transformation, constituting the largest share of growth in the Georgia electorate between 2000 and 2019, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Critics of the maps argued that the size of the Black electorate warranted at least one additional majority-Black district in Congress, as well as additional majority-Black districts in the State House of Representatives.

Among the plaintiffs in the legal challenges is Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the oldest Black fraternity in the United States, which has thousands of members in Georgia. Previously, Judge Jones had allowed the contested maps to be implemented in 2022, citing the proximity to that year’s elections as a factor. Republicans argued that there was ample evidence to show that Black voters maintained equal influence in the state, pointing to the election successes of Senator Raphael Warnock, the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia, and Representative Lucy McBath, who flipped a Republican-held seat.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, confirming that Alabama had unlawfully diminished the power of its Black voters, also had implications for Georgia. Given that control of the House rests on a narrow Republican majority, redrawing a few districts in the South could potentially tip the balance of power in the chamber. The court also mandated the redrawing of the state map.

The ruling in Georgia may be subject to appeal, as Republicans in other states have attempted to prolong litigation and avoid new maps that would be less politically advantageous for incumbent representatives.

Rick Rojas contributed reporting.

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