ATLANTA (AP) — It's a pattern Southern states have repeated for decades: A federal court rules an electoral map illegally dilutes the power of Black voters and orders a new one.
But with Georgia lawmakers scheduled to return Nov. 29 for a special session to debate new voting districts, some things are different.
Unlike earlier decades, when Republicans avoided losses, some Georgia GOP lawmakers are now likely to walk the plank when new districts are drawn. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in October ordered Georgia to draw Black majorities in one additional congressional district, two additional state Senate districts, and five additional state House districts.
A new Black-majority congressional district, combined with similar rulings in other Southern states, could help Democrats reclaim the U.S. House in 2024. New legislative districts could narrow Republican majorities in Georgia.
But some Democrats could get thrown overboard too, as Republicans seek to comply with the court while preserving their power. The GOP could reduce losses in Georgia's General Assembly by targeting Democrats representing predominantly white districts. But it's unclear if the GOP can legally prevent Democrats from gaining a congressional seat.
“Republicans could take it out on white Democrats rather than Republicans," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who studies redistricting.
Republicans aren't yet unveiling their plan.
“We’ll be in a place that Judge Jones will be able to accept and will be what’s best for for our members,” State House Speaker Jon Burns recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
State Senate Republicans are looking toward the state's planned appeal. If the state later wins an appeal, Georgia could have new districts in 2024 and revert to current lines in 2026.
“We went through the process. We followed the letter of the law. And we believe that in the end, we’ll, we’ll be victorious on that,” said state Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican.
From the 1970s through the 2000s, white Democrats across the South fought a rearguard battle against demands for Black representation and rising Republican power. Legislative chambers across the South ultimately flipped from Democratic to GOP control, and only Virginia has flipped back. New districts that benefitted Black voters often created an adjoining heavily white district that elected Republicans. At times, Republicans advocated for more Black districts, and supporters of minority representation tacitly accepted GOP assistance.
That dynamic dissolved after the 1990s, in part because Southern Democrats outside majority-minority districts were vanishing.
“There are just not a lot of white Democrats left, quite frankly," 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 mandated by Jones. The 7th's voting age population is 33% white, 27% Black, 21% Hispanic, 15% Asian and 4% other or multiracial.
Jones wrote in his order that Georgia can't fix its problems “by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere,” but it's not entirely clear if that applies to the 7th District, which is mostly in suburban Gwinnett County.
Cutting up the district could preserve Republicans' current 9-5 majority among Georgia congressional districts. That majority was 8-6 before 2020, but Republicans redrew McBath's old 6th District in their favor. McBath jumped to the 7th and defeated that district's Democratic incumbent. But shifting blocs of Democratic voters into other districts could upset surrounding Republicans. It could also violate Jones' order, said redistricting expert Kareem Crayton of the Brennan Center for Justice. He warned against “moving deck chairs around on a ship that’s still sailing towards illegality.”
Opportunities for Republicans to limit losses could be better in Georgia's legislature. Of 78 Democratic-represented state House districts, white people are the voting-age majority in eight, and the largest group in 12 more. Whites are the voting-age majority in three Democratic-represented Senate districts, and a plurality in three other Democratic districts.
Jones ordered two additional Black-majority state House districts and two additional Black-majority state Senate districts in southern metro Atlanta, and one new Black-majority House district in western metro Atlanta. Republicans might be able to draw those districts and shift existing Black-majority districts, squeezing white Democrats.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-serving Decatur Democrat whose white-majority district touches a number of Black-majority districts, calls redistricting “hand-to-hand combat with your neighbor.”
“It’s not a pretty process," she said. "It’s a selfish process in many ways.”
Some Republicans are still in peril. Republican state Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough lives in an area highlighted by the plaintiffs for a new Black-majority district. He says he'll fight on 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. "And so I’m prepared to take my message out to voters no matter whose district I’m in.”
Republicans could have the hardest time avoiding losses on two new Black-majority districts Jones ordered around Macon. There are no white-majority Democratic districts nearby that could be redrawn to save Republicans.
All those considerations mean Democrats are likely to make some gains, Bullock said.
“It may be that Democrats don’t win all of these seats which are kind of on the checklist, but they I’d be very surprised if they don’t pick up some of them," he said.