Can Georgia GOP add a majority-Black Congressional district by cutting a majority-minority one?

Lawmakers vote during a Georgia Senate Reapportionment & Redistricting meeting at the State Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The revised Congressional map being advanced by Georgia Republicans may be headed for a fight in court, as some Democrats and advocates argue the new map skirts the order of a judge.

The Republican-drawn map, which passed a Senate committee on Monday, creates a new, court-ordered majority-Black Congressional district in west Metro Atlanta. 

But Georgia Republicans seek to preserve their 9-5 advantage in Congress by dismantling the current 7th district, which is heavily Democratic and is majority-minority, but not majority-Black.

In October, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ordered the legislature to redraw the state’s political maps, ruling that they violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally diluting the power of Black voters.

At a hearing on Monday, Republican Sen. Shelly Echols, chair of the Senate redistricting committee, said the proposed map complies with the order.

“District 7 was not a majority-Black district on the 2021 plan, and it is not a majority-Black district on this plan,” Echols said. “So there is no concern about eliminating a minority opportunity district.”

In his ruling, Jones warned Georgia lawmakers not to create new majority-Black districts at the expense of “minority opportunity” districts. 

“The State cannot remedy the Section 2 violations described herein by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere in the plan,” he wrote.

The new map would have five majority-Black districts, compared to the four in the current maps. However, the total number of majority-minority districts would remain unchanged.

The congressional district map proposed by Republicans was released on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. (Georgia Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Office)

Echols said the redistricting committee has interpreted “minority opportunity” to mean “majority-Black” in the context of Jones’ ruling.

“This Congressional plan does not eliminate any existing majority-Black districts,” Echols said. “Instead it takes a district that is not a majority-Black district and shifts it north, where it remains non-majority-Black. To be clear, the Voting Rights Act protects distinct racial groups, not coalitions of voters.”

The reality is more complicated, says Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center, which advocates for expanded access to voting.

Li says the Supreme Court has not weighed in on the issue. But the majority of appeals courts that have, including the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Georgia, have found that minority-coalition districts are protected by the Voting Rights Act if the minority groups are “politically cohesive.”

“For the state to prevail, it would have to get the Eleventh Circuit precedent reversed by either the Eleventh Circuit or by SCOTUS,” Li says. “Or conversely, win factually on a lack of cohesion among Black, Latino, and Asian voters.”

The state has already appealed Jones’ initial order. But the state could also appeal any order by Jones against the newly-drawn districts as well.

In Alabama, a court-appointed special master ultimately drew the final congressional map after federal judges found that lawmakers’ revised districts still did not comply with the Voting Rights Act. 

Democrats say new map targets Lucy McBath

On Monday, several advocacy groups pushed back on the Republican-drawn map. David Galeo is director of public policy and advocacy for the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund.

“It is concerning that although they added a majority-Black district in Congress, the map drawers dismantled Congressional District 7, a majority-Black and Hispanic district, once again targeting Lucy McBath, a member of color,” Garcia told the committee. “To do so, Gwinnett is now split in four ways.”

After McBath, a Democrat, flipped a suburban, Republican-held, seat in 2018, Republicans redrew the district so it would be more likely to elect a Republican. McBath successfully challenged a fellow Democrat in a neighboring district.

“Georgia Republicans have yet again attempted to subvert voters by changing the rules,” said Jake Orvis, McBath’s campaign manager. “Congresswoman McBath refuses to let an extremist few in the state legislature determine when her time serving Georgians in Congress is done.”

Democrats have proposed their own Congressional map, but it is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled legislature.

The revised Congressional map, along with the proposed maps for state House and Senate, must clear both legislative chambers before they go to the governor’s desk and then up for court review.