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A federal judge says Georgia's political maps must be redrawn for the 2024 election

A voter marks her ballot during early voting, on Oct. 17, 2022, in Atlanta.
Ben Gray
A voter marks her ballot during early voting, on Oct. 17, 2022, in Atlanta.

Updated October 26, 2023 at 4:57 PM ET

ATLANTA — A federal judge has ruled that Georgia's congressional and state legislative districts must be redrawn before the 2024 election, reshaping the fight for control of Congress and the Georgia legislature.

In a 516-page order released Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones wrote that the current political maps drawn by Republican lawmakers after the last census violate the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of Black voters.

Jones, who was nominated to the court by former President Barack Obama, ordered lawmakers to redraw the maps by Dec. 8.

"The Court reiterates that Georgia has made great strides since 1965 towards equality in voting," Jones wrote in the ruling, referencing the year the VRA was passed. "However, 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."

A group of civil rights and religious organizations challenged the maps, arguing that Black residents fueled Georgia's population growth in the decade before the 2020 census, but that reality did not translate into adequate political representation in Atlanta or Washington, D.C.

The state is expected to appeal the decision, though in a similar case, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld rulings ordering GOP-led Alabama to redraw its U.S. House map to add an additional district boosting Black voters.

Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has scheduled a Nov. 29 special session, so lawmakers can literally go back to the drawing board to produce new maps.

The new maps could result in Georgia Democrats netting an additional U.S. House seat in Metro Atlanta next fall — likely in a rejiggered 6th Congressional District anchored in the suburbs west of Atlanta — and narrowing the large Republican majorities in the state legislature.

Do Georgia's maps discriminate against Black voters?

Over the course of a two-week trial in early September, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Georgia's district lines prevented Black voters from being able to elect candidates of their choice.

Georgia's Black population grew by about 484,000 people between 2010 and 2020, according to the census, while the state's white population declined.

The plaintiffs argued that in some places, map-makers shoved Black voters together and, in other places, split them apart, reducing the number of districts where they had the clout to elect their preferred candidates.

Sophia Lin Lakin, co-director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project who represented the plaintiffs, argued Georgia's history of racial discrimination in voting "reverberates into the present" and said "the Voting Rights Act was designed for cases such as this one."

The plaintiffs argued that Georgia could draw another majority-Black congressional district in Metro Atlanta and several more majority-Black state legislative seats while still adhering to traditional redistricting principles like keeping districts compact and contiguous.

William Cooper, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, submitted an illustrative map that created additional majority-Black state legislative districts south of Atlanta and in Georgia's historic Black Belt, including seats near Albany, Macon and Augusta.

"It's just baffling" that mapmakers did not draw more majority-Black districts, Cooper testified.

Lawyers for the state argued that Black Georgians no longer face systemic discrimination at the ballot box, noting, for example, that Black Georgians in recent years have been able to elect both their preferred candidates for the U.S. Senate, including Democrat Raphael Warnock, who is Black.

"Georgia's electoral system is equally open to participation by all voters," Bryan Tyson, lead counsel for the state, told the judge.

The state argued in court that Georgia's Republican-led legislature properly fulfilled its duty in approving new maps, drawing them to maximize their partisan advantage, not to shut out Black voters.

"You can't presume race when politics is an equally plausible explanation," Tyson told the judge.

Take Metro Atlanta's congressional districts, for example. In 2020, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux defeated a Republican in Georgia's 7th Congressional District. In the district next door, prominent gun control advocate Lucy McBath, who is Black, did the same in 2018.

When Republican lawmakers redrew the maps in 2021, they made McBath's 6th District a lot more friendly to Republicans by squeezing as many Democrats as possible into the 7th District.

Essentially, lawmakers reconfigured Metro Atlanta's U.S. House districts in a way that made two competitive districts into one very red district and one very blue district, despite Atlanta's suburbs growing, diversifying and trending more Democratic.

In 2022, McBath ended up winning a primary against Bordeaux in the safe 7th District, while a Republican swept the new 6th.

Partisan gerrymandering is legal, but racial gerrymandering is not, so the court had to untangle what exactly was playing out in Georgia's maps.

And a big question wrapped up in that debate is how much a voter's race correlates with which party they support in elections.

In Georgia, most Black voters cast their ballots for Democrats, while white Georgians disproportionately vote Republican.

But the defense argued the breakdown is not so simple.

"Georgia has a very different set of facts than Alabama," Tyson said, noting that in some suburban districts in Metro Atlanta, a number of white voters are willing to vote Democratic, giving Black voters the opportunity to elect preferred candidates even without a majority-Black district.

Supreme Court decision on Alabama map shaped Georgia ruling

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that ordered Alabama to redraw its U.S. House maps. The courts have continued to uphold that order — and the state has a new congressional map — despite pushback from Alabama, paving the way for similar rulings in other states like Georgia.

"Right now, all eyes are on the South and states like Georgia," says Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for expanded access to voting. "Georgia, like most southern states, has struggled for decades to give its growing communities of color a meaningful seat of the table."

Until the last decade, the U.S. Department of Justice had to approve changes to voting practices, including new political maps, in certain states with a history of racial discrimination, including Georgia.

But in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that provision of the Voting Rights Act in a case called Shelby v. Holder, making 2020 the first post-census redistricting cycle in Georgia without "pre-clearance."

"When you have someone check your homework and make sure you're making a good faith effort to ensure the maps are not discriminatory, that's the kind of rigorous process Congress had enacted to ensure that ghosts of the past would not come back to haunt us today," said Sean Young, former ACLU of Georgia legal director, in an interview last year.

During the trial, lawyers for the state disputed that discriminatory voting practices persist in present day Georgia.

"Stories of history won't connect to the reality of today," Tyson said.

Last year, Judge Jones declined to temporarily block Georgia's new maps before the 2022 midterms, ruling that it was too close to the election to draw new maps. But in that decision, Jones also wrote he had reason to believe the maps likely violated the Voting Rights Act.

Now, with the courts poised to strike down political maps in several states that were used for the 2022 midterms, Democrats hope to gain ground with newly drawn district lines.

"There is an epic fight for control of the U.S. House right now," Li says. "And what happens in states like Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina is going to be very impactful on whether Democrats have a realistic shot of winning back the house in 2024."

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.