Contenders to maps of Georgia’s voting districts told a federal judge on Tuesday that the state is legally required to provide more political opportunities for black voters, while the state noted that plaintiffs are trying to force illegal racial rigs into its congressional and legislative districts.
The opening statements kicked off a trial expected to last two weeks. If the contestants win, the Democrats could take one of Georgia’s 14 seats in the US House of Representatives, as well as multiple seats in the state’s Senate and House of Representatives.
The case is part of a wave of ongoing lawsuits after the US Supreme Court earlier this year stood behind its interpretation of the Voting Rights Act and rejected Alabama’s challenge to the law. Section 2 of the federal law states that voting district lines cannot discriminate against minority voters, who must be given the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. A three-judge panel ruled on Tuesday that Alabama’s attempts to redraw congressional districts had failed.
US District Judge Steve Jones is hearing the Georgia case without a jury. Jones tentatively ruled in 2022 that some parts of Georgia’s redistricting plans may violate federal law, but that a trial is necessary to clarify the facts in order to rule. And Jones could order the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Georgia to redraw districts to comply with the law.
Prosecutors argue that Georgia’s failure is evident after the state added nearly 500,000 black residents between 2010 and 2020, but drew no new districts in the black-majority state’s Senate and only two additional districts in the black-majority state’s House of Representatives. They also argue that Georgia should have another congressional district with a black majority.
“Black voters have been denied new political opportunities, even though new black-majority areas could have been demarcated,” said Sophia Lynn Lakin, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “The Court can and should ensure that black voters are not denied the opportunity to participate on an equal footing.”
White voters continue to vote against candidates favored by black voters, attorneys for the plaintiffs said, proving that the Voting Rights Act remedy of drawing majority-black districts is still needed.
“The Voting Rights Act was designed for situations like this,” Lakin said.
But Brian Tyson, in defense of the state’s maps, said that “Georgia has a very different set of facts than Alabama,” prompting the court’s latest ruling. Tyson pointed to the election of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the Senate, as well as President Joe Biden’s success in carrying Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in 2020, as evidence that candidates favored by black voters can win.
“If Georgia’s electoral system is not equally open to black voters, what must change?” Tyson asked. “If the system is not currently equally open, where is the failure to follow the Voting Rights Act?”
Tyson argued that the plaintiffs’ proposed plans cross the line from legally aware of race to illegally draw maps based mostly on race. It is a charge prosecutors deny. William Cooper, an expert hired by the plaintiffs to draw alternative maps, testified that more black-majority areas could be created.
When drawing the alternative maps, Cooper said he took into account a number of factors from traditional district-drawing, including reducing the number of counties, cities, and voting districts divided between regions.
“Ethnicity was not dominant,” he said.
Tyson also renewed the state’s argument that the maps of Georgia were drawn to protect incumbents and to prioritize the Republican majority, which are legal motives under federal law. He said recent voting behavior shows that party, rather than race, is the most important factor in motivating voters.
“You can’t assume race when partisanship is an equally reasonable explanation,” he said.
But Abha Khanna, another attorney for the plaintiffs, rejected Tyson’s arguments, saying his focus on partisanship and the current electoral success of blacks in Georgia ignores the state’s obligations under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Khanna said the state apparently believes that “if they wanted it bad enough, the Supreme Court would change the law, change the goalposts, and even release the state of Georgia from its Section 2 obligations.”