Thursday, May 23, 2024

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that the Georgia legislature had complied with orders to draw voting maps that allowed Black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice, signing off on new districts created earlier this month.

The Republican-led legislature had drawn new state and congressional maps during a December special session, after a federal judge in Atlanta said the original districts created after the 2020 census violated the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Democrats and Black voters in the state objected to the new maps, which created an additional majority Black congressional district but were unfavorable to Representative Lucy McBath, a Democratic congresswoman. It also ensured that Republican incumbents in both the Statehouse and Washington would be protected from a primary political challenger for their seats.

But Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia, who first struck down the maps in late October, said that the legislature had now done enough to comply with the Voting Rights Act with its new maps, which are likely to maintain the 9-5 majority Republicans hold in the state’s congressional delegation.

“The court finds that the General Assembly fully complied with this court’s order requiring the creation of a majority-Black congressional district in the region of the state where vote dilution was found,” Judge Jones, who was nominated to his post by President Barack Obama, wrote in one of three rulings rejecting challenges to the redrawn congressional and state legislature maps.

Beyond the question of fair representation, there were additional political stakes. With the House of Representatives narrowly divided and Black voters historically inclined to support Democrats in the state, a new map is one of several redistricting decisions that had the potential to help tip the balance of power in Washington.

In Alabama, where a challenge brought by Black voters led to a surprise Supreme Court ruling this summer that affirmed the core remaining tenet of the Voting Rights Act, a federal court ordered that a new map be independently drawn after finding that the Legislature had failed to resolve existing inequities in the state.

Similar challenges are underway in other states, particularly in the South.

The challenges to the state and congressional districts in Georgia were brought by a number of plaintiffs, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church and members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the nation’s oldest Black fraternity. Both organizations represent hundreds of members in the state of Georgia. “Federal law requires an end to vote dilution everywhere and a real change for injured voters, not reshuffling the same deck,” said Ari Savitzky, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. “We are evaluating all of our options and will continue to hold the General Assembly accountable until Georgia voters get the maps they deserve.”

The redistricting showdown came after Democrats whittled away at Republican dominance in the state over several election cycles — driven in part by a substantial growth of Black voters since 2000. In 2020, voters elected a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992 and then sent two Democrats to the Senate in 2021.

Republicans had repeatedly sought to tamp down that influence, including during the special session in early December. Beyond maintaining Republican congressional control, the maps drawn this month appear likely to preserve the Republican majorities in the two chambers of the state legislature.

And while the new maps created an additional majority-Black congressional district, two in the State Senate and five in the Statehouse, Republicans also effectively drew Ms. McBath, the Black Democrat who represents large pieces of Fulton and Gwinnett Counties in Atlanta’s northeastern suburbs, out of her seat.

The plaintiffs opposing the maps argued that by reconfiguring Ms. McBath’s district, where Black, Latino and Asian communities previously made up the majority, Republicans had deprived a coalition of voters of color of the opportunity to elect a district of their choice. But Judge Jones wrote that the litigation had so far centered on Black voters, and declined to expand beyond that voting bloc in the current case.

“This is the type of challenge to a remedial districting plan that demands development of significant new evidence and therefore is more appropriately addressed in a separate proceeding,” Judge Jones wrote.

It marks the second time Republicans have targeted Ms. McBath, who rose to national prominence first as a gun control activist after her son was killed in a 2012 shooting. After she ousted a Republican incumbent in 2018, her district was redrawn to favor Republicans and she instead successfully challenged another Democrat, Carolyn Bourdeaux.

But Ms. McBath said she would still seek to return to Congress, announcing plans to run in a different district under the new maps. That would mean moving to a district currently represented by Representative Rich McCormick, a Republican in the Sixth Congressional District, she said in a statement, adding that “too much is at stake to stand down.”

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