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Georgia lawmakers gather for a judge-ordered assignment: Make new voting maps

The Georgia Capitol is seen on Aug. 27, 2022, in front of the Atlanta skyline. State lawmakers will gather Wednesday to start work on new political district maps.
Steve Helber
The Georgia Capitol is seen on Aug. 27, 2022, in front of the Atlanta skyline. State lawmakers will gather Wednesday to start work on new political district maps.

ATLANTA — A special legislative session begins Wednesday in Georgia to redraw the state's political maps after a federal judge ruled that the current district lines illegally dilute the power of Black voters.

The new maps could affect the balance of power in the state legislature and in Congress, where Republicans are fighting to hold on to a very narrow U.S. House majority.

Georgia lawmakers have until Dec. 8 to approve maps that comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices based on race and other traits.

In October, U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones ordered the Georgia General Assembly to draw an additional majority-Black congressional district and several majority-Black state House and Senate seats.

"The evidence before this Court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process has equal openness and equal opportunity for everyone," Jones wrote in the ruling.

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of Georgia's legislature, giving them near-total control of the map drawing. But even after the maps clear the legislature and the desk of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the court still has to give final approval.

The process has proved contentious in other states under court orders to redo political maps created after the last census. In Alabama, a court-appointed special master ended up drawing the final congressional map after federal judges found that lawmakers' revised districts still did not comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Georgia Republicans have indicated they will try to comply with Judge Jones' order while also protecting their incumbents and preserving their partisan advantage.

The proposed state Senate map, made public on Monday, creates a new majority-Black district in West Metro Atlanta and another to the south, where growing concentrations of Black residents have helped fuel the state's population growth.

But the map tries to blunt any Democratic gains by dismantling two districts held by prominent Democratic incumbents.

Judge Jones warned Georgia lawmakers not to create new majority-Black districts by eliminating existing minority opportunity districts elsewhere.

While racial gerrymandering is illegal, partisan gerrymandering is allowed.

Republican Senate leadership said in a statement that "the new plan fully complies with Judge Jones' order while also upholding Georgia's traditional principles."

University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock, the author of The History of Redistricting in Georgia, says attempting to skirt the court's instruction would be risky.

"I would think that the Georgia legislature would take a lesson from what they saw happen in Alabama within the last few months," Bullock says. "I can't imagine that the Republican majority would like to have a special master come in and change lots of their districts and make it much more difficult for a lot of Republicans."

Democratic groups are already criticizing Georgia's proposed Senate maps, with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee calling the map gerrymandered and undemocratic.

Hearings this week will allow the public to provide feedback, though with only days to finalize the maps, few substantive changes are expected.

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, is encouraging people to step back from the legal technicalities and the political jockeying to view the judge's redistricting order within the broader sweep of Georgia history.

She says it represents "the long-denied aspirations of Black Georgians to be full citizens of Georgia, to be fully represented in a state where for many of us, our ancestors were enslaved, where we suffered under Jim Crow laws, where we now pay taxes, build the economy and the culture."

The state has appealed Jones' decision to redraw the maps, but did not attempt to pause the order while the appeal plays out. Lawyers involved in the case anticipate the appeal could take months to play out, meaning new maps will likely be in place at least for the 2024 elections.

Copyright 2023 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.