As Georgia looks to court-ordered redistricting, the danger is not limited to Republicans

As Georgia looks to court-ordered redistricting, the danger is not limited to Republicans

It’s a pattern Southern states have been repeating for decades: A federal court rules that an electoral map illegally dilutes the power of black voters and orders a new map to be drawn.

But as Georgia lawmakers return on November 29 for a special session to discuss new voting districts, some things are different.

Unlike previous decades, when Republicans avoided losses, some GOP lawmakers in Georgia are now likely to shrug when new districts are drawn. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in October ordered the state of Georgia to draw a black majority in one additional congressional district, two additional state Senate districts, and five additional state House districts.

The new majority-black congressional district, along with similar provisions in other Southern states, could help Democrats reclaim the US House of Representatives in 2024. The new legislative districts could narrow the Republican majority in Georgia.

But some Democrats could be thrown overboard, too, as Republicans seek to comply with the court while maintaining their power. The Republican Party can minimize its losses in the Georgia General Assembly by targeting Democrats who represent majority-white districts. But it’s unclear whether the GOP can legally block Democrats from gaining a seat in Congress.

“Republicans could attack white Democrats instead of Republicans,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who studies redistricting.

Republicans have not yet revealed their plan.

“We will be in a position where Judge Jones can accept it and it will be best for our members,” House Speaker John Burns recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State Senate Republicans are eyeing a planned state appeal. If the state later wins the appeal, Georgia could have new districts in 2024 and revert to current lines in 2026.

“We’ve gone through this process. We’ve followed the letter of the law. We believe we will ultimately prevail on this,” said state Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega.

From the 1970s through the 2000s, white Democrats across the South fought a backdoor battle against demands for black representation and growing Republican power. Legislatures across the South eventually flipped from Democratic to Republican control, with only Virginia flipping. New districts that benefited black voters often created an adjacent, heavily white district that elected Republicans. At times, Republicans called for the creation of more black districts, and proponents of minority representation implicitly accepted GOP assistance.

This dynamic faded after the 1990s, in part because Southern Democrats disappeared outside majority and minority districts.

“Frankly, there aren’t a lot of white Democrats left,” Bullock said.

One key question is whether Republicans can dissolve Georgia’s current 7th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Lucy McBath, while drawing a new, majority-black district on the west side of metro Atlanta as Jones has mandated. The seven-year voting age population is 33% white, 27% black, 21% Hispanic, 15% Asian, and 4% other races.

Jones wrote in his order that Georgia could not solve its problems “by eliminating minority opportunity zones elsewhere,” but it is not entirely clear whether that applies to the 7th District, most of which is located in suburban Gwinnett County.

Gerrymandering could preserve the current 9-5 Republican majority among Georgia’s congressional districts. That majority was 8-6 before 2020, but Republicans redrawn McBath’s old 6th District in their favor. McBath jumped to seventh place, defeating the Democratic incumbent in that district. But moving blocs of Democratic voters to other areas could upset the Republicans around them. That could also violate Jones’ order, said Kareem Crayton, a redistricting expert from the Brennan Center for Justice. He warned against “moving deck chairs on a ship that is still sailing towards illegality.”

Republicans’ chances of limiting losses may be better in the Georgia legislature. Of the 78 districts represented by Democrats in the House of Representatives, whites represent the majority of voting age in eight districts, and the largest group in 12 others. Whites are a majority of voting age in three Senate districts represented by Democrats, and a majority in three other Democratic districts.

Jones ordered two additional black majority House districts and two additional black majority Senate districts in south metro Atlanta, and a new black majority House district in west metro Atlanta. Republicans may be able to draw those districts, change the current black-majority districts, and put pressure on white Democrats.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-serving Decatur Democrat whose majority-white district touches a number of majority-Black districts, calls redistricting a “fist fight with your neighbor.”

“It’s not a pretty process,” she said. “It’s a selfish process in many ways.”

Some Republicans are still in danger. Republican state Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough lives in an area highlighted by plaintiffs for a new majority-black district. He says he will continue fighting even if his district is redrawn.

“I can’t control the redistricting process, but I can control who I am as a candidate,” Strickland said. “So I am ready to get my message out to voters no matter what district I am in.”

Republicans may have the toughest time avoiding losses in two new majority-black districts ordered by Jones around Macon. There are no nearby majority-white Democratic districts that could be redrawn to save Republicans.

All of these considerations mean Democrats are likely to make some gains, Bullock said.

“Democrats may not win all of these seats on the ticket, but I would be very surprised if they didn’t pick up some of them,” he said.

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