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Georgia’s Added Black Districts Without More Representation

The state’s new maps added more majority-Black districts but added them to areas that already had Black representation and whitewashed or combined other districts, leading to maps that offer little chance of partisan competition.

When a judge ordered more majority-Black districts in Georgia, Republican legislators came up with a plan to entrench their political power by shuffling voters around and dividing them by race.

They added more majority-Black districts but put them in areas that often already have Black representation.

They whitewashed the district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, transforming it from one that’s racially mixed, majority-minority to one that’s nearly two-thirds white.

They drew six Democratic state House representatives, most of them white, into three districts, forcing half of them out of office in next year’s elections. Two white Republicans were also paired together.

The result of Georgia’s new political maps is a Republican Party that will rely on districts dominated by white voters and little chance of partisan competition in next year’s general elections for Congress and the General Assembly.

Georgia lawmakers finished their court-ordered redistricting Thursday after a federal judge ruled that the state’s previous political boundaries illegally weakened representation for a rapidly growing population of Black voters.

Despite the judge ordering the Legislature to draw one additional congressional district and seven more state seats with a majority of Black voters, it’s unlikely they’ll get much more of a voice in districts polarized by race. Republican leaders acknowledged they considered partisan voting patterns when drawing the lines, which is legal.

The Democratic candidates that Black voters overwhelmingly support are unlikely to win many additional seats while Republicans will maintain their control of Georgia’s Capitol.

‘Racial Polarization Is Politically Beneficial’

The most protected class in the new maps are Republicans — and the white voters in Georgia that generally support them.

Republicans wouldn’t lose a seat in Congress, maintaining their 9-5 advantage after Democrats narrowly won recent elections for president and the U.S. Senate.

Republicans would also retain every seat they currently hold in the state Senate, increasing the number of Black districts by two but keeping their 33-23 lead. After drawing five new majority-Black districts in the House, Republicans would lose an estimated two seats where they have a 102-78 majority.

“For many Republican leaders, racial polarization is politically beneficial,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who’s served for more than 30 years in the General Assembly. “It creates loyalty for a certain part of the majority-white population of Georgia.”

Republicans disagree with claims that they didn’t increase opportunities for Black representation or follow the judge’s order.

They point to the fact that the maps add more Black districts but acknowledge they created political lines in a way that minimizes their losses.

“In five new districts, the African American population in those areas will be in a greater position to get elected candidates of their choice. So I don’t see how that’s going to reduce their voting power,” said House Redistricting Chairman Rob Leverett, a Republican from Elberton. “We certainly considered partisan considerations in the drawing of these maps, at least I did. But I tried to do so in a way that was restrained and responsible.”

White vs Black?

Race and partisanship are already closely linked in Georgia’s representation.

In Congress, Georgia’s nine Republicans are white and the state’s five Democrats are Black. Among 135 Republican state legislators, all but six are white. Most of the state’s 101 Democratic lawmakers are people of color.

Democrats warn Republicans that splitting the state by race isn’t sustainable in a state that’s becoming more and more diverse.

“I hope you … recognize that the future of America is a multiracial democracy and that the Republican Party cannot survive without also becoming a multiracial party that it currently is not,” said Senate Minority Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, pushed back on the idea Republicans only cater to white voters.

“We’d love to recruit more people of color into the Republican Party,” he said. “Diversity is important to us.”

The new maps enhance racial polarization by targeting white Democrats and dividing most districts into Black or white majorities, with few multiracial areas where candidates from each party would have a chance of winning.

But state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R- Athens, said he thinks the state’s voters have stepped away from mainly using race to determine which candidates they support.

“Here we are in a state with 31 percent African American population that has a U.S. senator elected by this state that is African American,” Cowsert said, referencing U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. “How did we do that if we’re so racist? In my party, Herschel Walker won the primary (last year) and cleared the field of all these white candidates. How did we do that if Republicans are so racist?”

A Diversifying State

Georgia’s redistricting sorts voters along political boundaries that predetermine the partisan outcome of most elections before campaigns even begin, minimizing competition between Republicans and Democrats. Most contests will be decided in party primaries months before general elections.

So in perhaps the most closely divided state in the nation, decided by 12,000 votes in the 2020 presidential election, Republicans retain power at every level of state government.

“If Republicans decide that the party is more white, what they’re doing is attempting to replace racism with political affiliation. They’re saying Republican is white and Democrat is Black,” said Alicia Hughes, interim director for the Center for Civil Rights and Social Justice at the Emory University School of Law. “That’s not going to play out well as brown people are increasing in the state.”

Since 2010, Georgia’s Black population boomed and its white population declined, according to the U.S. census.

The Black population, including those who identify as Black and at least one other race, increased by 484,000, while the state’s white-only population declined by 52,000. Hispanic and Asian populations in the state have also jumped.

Despite rising numbers of Black residents, Republicans’ redistricting two years ago denied adequate opportunities for Black voters to elect their preferred candidates, according to U.S. District Judge Steve Jones’ ruling in October.

Jones threw out the 2021 maps, finding that they illegally weakened Black voting power in violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Now that the General Assembly has approved new maps, Jones will again decide whether they’re discriminatory.

Jones could disqualify them again and appoint his own map-drawing expert to reshape the state politically once again, likely launching a court fight over race and representation that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The state is not the same. It’s changed. We’re moving forward. And I think Republicans are going to overplay their hand,” said state House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon. “I think the public will say, ‘No, it’s not the Georgia we want.’ ”

Preserving Power

Efforts to maintain power are not exclusive to Republicans, who flipped the state from Democratic control in the early 2000s.

During the 2001 redistricting session, Democrats drew political district lines in oddly shaped, sometimes elongated ways to combat a growing Republican threat to their General Assembly majority. They paired dozens of white GOP lawmakers in some districts to force them to run against each other and drew other districts to strengthen the position of Democrats.

Those maps were thrown out by a judge, who redrew the maps in 2004, leading the way for Republicans to assume control of the Georgia House. Republicans took control of the Senate after the 2002 election.

Twenty years later, Democrats say the tide is turning again.

Democrats predict that waning Republicans’ attempts to hold onto power will eventually backfire as Georgia’s population continues to grow and diversify, especially in liberal-leaning metro areas.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, one of the six Democratic legislators drawn into competition with one of her fellow white representatives in a Cobb County district, said Republicans did whatever they could to avoid doing what the judge ordered.

“It seems completely outside what the judge was looking for,” said Anulewicz, who represents Smyrna. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense as to why they would have spent any time dealing with a district in Cobb County that had very little, if anything, to do with anything the judge was hoping to see in these proposed maps.”

One of the few Republican casualties of redistricting could be state Rep. Ken Vance, whose Milledgeville district became 50 percent Black, reducing his chances of winning reelection. His current district is 37 percent Black.

Vance said he and other Republicans can represent people of all races.

“I’m not a divisive person. I don’t do that. But I am going to represent the people of the district whether they vote for me or not,” Vance said. “At the end of the day, that’s your job.”

House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican from Newington, declined to comment.

Attorneys representing the state will be back in court Dec. 20, making their arguments for why they say the three new sets of maps comply with Jones’ order.

If he agrees, the maps will be used in the 2024 elections.

If not, and Jones decides to throw out one or all of the maps, he will appoint a mapmaking expert to divvy the state into districts for next year’s elections.

Then the redistricting case would move rapidly through appellate courts, possibly reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, either upholding or diminishing the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Redistricting Breakdown

Georgia legislators approved new district lines for Congress, the state Senate and the state House during a special session that concluded Thursday. Redrawn political boundaries are designed to leave Republican majorities unchanged in Congress and the Senate while giving up an estimated two seats in the House.

Current partisanship in Georgia:

Congress: 9 Republican, 5 Democratic

Senate: 33 Republican, 23 Democratic

House: 102 Republican, 78 Democratic

©2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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