Democrats, voting rights activists pan Georgia GOP lawmakers’ revised legislative districts

At a Capitol press conference Wednesday, members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus said the proposed maps do not meet the goal of protecting Black voters and giving them a fair chance to elect the candidate of their choice. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The redrawn legislative maps floated by Georgia Republican leaders have quickly found pushback from Democrats and voting rights advocates as a special redistricting session – the second in two years – gets underway.

A proposed state Senate map was released Monday, and a state House map was unveiled Tuesday afternoon, just one day before the first day of the special session. A reconfigured congressional map has not yet emerged.

All three must be redrawn after federal District Court Judge Steve Jones ruled in October that maps drawn in 2021 as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process dilute the voting strength of Black Georgians. Jones issued a detailed 516-page order following a nearly two-week data intensive trial held in September.

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Jones gave lawmakers a Dec. 8 deadline to address the deficiencies to his satisfaction and outlined a remedy that called for two additional majority Black Senate districts in south metro Atlanta and five additional majority Black House districts, including two “in or around” Macon-Bibb County, two in south metro Atlanta and another in west metro Atlanta. His order also called for a new majority Black congressional district in west metro Atlanta. 

Black Georgians have historically voted for Democrats at high rates.

State Republican leaders have opted to move forward with designing new political maps even as they appeal the ruling.

Public hearings were held on both legislative maps Wednesday afternoon. A committee vote on the House version could happen as soon as Thursday, when Democratic leaders are also set to present their alternative maps. The House Democratic proposal was released Wednesday. 

Critics of the GOP’s proposed maps argue Republican leaders have either not addressed the judge’s concerns or made unnecessary changes elsewhere to make up for political ground ceded to comply with the order.

At a Capitol press conference, members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus said Wednesday that the proposed maps do not meet the goal of protecting Black voters and giving them a fair chance to elect the candidate of their choice. 

“The order says the outcome might be numbers, it might be five state representatives seats, it might be two Senate, it might be one congressional, but regardless, the districts have to be fair,” said Garden City Democratic Rep. Carl Gilliard.

Reaction to the Senate map

On Wednesday, a couple dozen people representing various public policy and voting rights organizations railed against the proposed Senate map during a public hearing, arguing the new plan is based more on political motives than complying with the court order.

Gainesville Republican Sen. Shelly Echols, who chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, defended the proposal. She said after figuring out how to draw two majority Black Senate districts in south Atlanta, the next step was to address the shifting dominos for several districts around Atlanta. 

All said, the revised map impacts 15 districts.

Echols says Republican lawmakers are still pushing to keep the old district maps intact by asking an appellate court to overturn Jones’ decision. 

“We believe we’ve reached a plan that’s far better than those produced by the plaintiffs, while also complying with everything the judge requires,” Echols said. “It’s important to note the ripple effect is real when drawing plans. When new districts are located in the southern part of metro Atlanta, the nearby population has to be adjusted. Those changes then ripple out primarily north until they are resolved.”

But Georgia Democrats are accusing Republicans of playing shell games and consolidating Black voters inside a core of Atlanta in places beyond Jones’ remedy.

One of the proposed changes that critics say is problematic is the district represented by longtime Sen. Gail Davenport, a Jonesboro Democrat whose current district includes Clayton and DeKalb counties. The district would be redrawn to include west Henry County, Jonesboro, and Lovejoy. 

The ACLU of Georgia said that the Republicans’ plans for Davenport’s district would unnecessarily form a new district in which nearly every Black voter already lives in another overwhelmingly Black district. The ACLU represents the historically Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha along with other plaintiffs that sued the state over the 2021 legislative maps. 

“By moving around voters in districts outside the court’s area of focus, the committee plan increases the total number of Black-majority districts without meaningfully changing the configuration of the districts that the court found violated the VRA,” the ACLU wrote in a letter sent Monday to the House and Senate redistricting committees.

Longtime Sen. Gail Davenport, a Jonesboro Democrat. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Davenport expressed her dissatisfaction with the Republican redistricting plans.

“I guess you all thought that we would sit by and say nothing,” she said. “But those of us who are Black here know why we were sent here, know that much blood was shed for our right to vote and for Black people to be represented.”

Under the proposed Senate map, Sens. Elena Parent and Jason Esteves would also see their current districts in metro Atlanta go from primarily white to districts with a significant Black population.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, several Democrats said the expensive legal battle and special session could’ve been avoided if Republican lawmakers heeded their concerns about the reconfigured maps passed at a special legislative session in 2021.

Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat, labeled the GOP’s latest map an insult and blatant disregard for a judge’s order. 

“They’re going to try to sell to you that we created two majority Black districts, but what they won’t spill is that they are robbing Black votes from other districts in order to satisfy,” Merritt said.

The House map

The GOP’s proposed House map creates the court-ordered five majority Black districts, but it also makes changes to about one-third of all the chamber’s districts in the process.

The map’s sponsor, Elberton Republican Rep. Rob Leverett, who chairs the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, argued the alterations to 56 districts were all just part of the ripple effect from the court-ordered changes.

The plan also features several incumbent lawmakers from the same party who would be drawn into the same district, meaning they would have to face each other in a primary.

Among Democrats, those matchups include Smyrna Reps. Teri Anulewicz and Doug Stoner, Dekalb County Reps. Saira Draper and Becky Evans, and Gwinnett County Reps. Sam Park, who is the Minority Caucus Whip, and Gregg Kennard.

On the other side of the aisle, long-time state Griffin Rep. David Knight, who chairs the higher education budget committee, would be paired with two-term Concord Rep. Beth Camp. And first-term Milledgeville Republican Rep. Ken Vance, for example, would also find himself in a Democratic-leaning district.

Leverett said some of the district lines borrow from the work of the plaintiffs’ mapmakers used during the recent trial.

“We have appealed Judge Jones’s order, and so the bill that I filed has a reverter. If the appeal is upheld, we would revert to the 2021 maps,” Leverett said.

“But for now, we are complying. We are trying to comply with the judge’s order, and these would be effective at least for the next election cycle and probably more and potentially would stay in place if the appeal is unsuccessful.”

But voting rights advocates are pressuring House leaders to apply a lighter touch.  

Janet Grant, vice chair of Fair Districts, criticized the proposed map for making changes that are well outside the targeted geographic areas identified in the judge’s order.

“We believe that a more surgical approach would yield a map that complies with the court order, doesn’t attempt to even the partisan score and disrupts far fewer Georgia voters,” Grant said at Wednesday’s public hearing. 

Georgia Recorder reporter Ross Williams contributed to this report. 

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