Balance of state’s political power on the table when lawmakers gather for special session next week

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

November 22, 2023

When state lawmakers meet next week to redraw Georgia’s political maps, a national audience will follow the debate over the creation of an additional court-ordered majority Black district in west metro Atlanta.

But Georgia political observers say the forced reworking of the state’s legislative maps could also prove consequential.

Lawmakers have until Dec. 8 to redraw the state’s district lines after federal District Court Judge Steve Jones last month tossed out maps created in 2021 that he ruled diluted the voting strength of Black Georgians.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp quickly called for a post-Thanksgiving special legislative session to start on Nov. 29. But attorneys for the state have also said they plan to appeal the decision. 

Attorneys for the state defended the maps during a nearly two-week trial in September as the product of a political process that protected the GOP majority. They pointed to outcomes at the ballot box in recent years as proof that Georgia’s system is equally open to all and that partisan preferences, and not racial identity, drive voters’ decision-making.

But Jones wrote in his ruling that while Georgia has made “great strides” in increasing political opportunities for Black voters since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, there were still gaps in the process.

“For example, in the past decade, all of Georgia’s population growth was attributable to the minority population, however, the number of majority-Black congressional and legislative districts remained the same,” he wrote.

Republican legislative leaders have been largely quiet about the redistricting do-over and have offered few clues about their plans. House Speaker Jon Burns has said he believes they will land “in a place that Judge Jones will be able to accept,” though he did not elaborate, and no proposed GOP maps for either chamber have been released with the mapmaking session now a week away.

“I’m confident Georgia will draw legal maps,” said Adam Kincaid, who is the president and executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, which coordinates the GOP’s nationwide redistricting efforts. “The question is whether those maps will be approved by the district court or if the state will have to wait for vindication on appeal.”

The detailed 516-page order appears to leave little wiggle room for GOP mapmakers. Jones offered specific guidance on what a remedy should look like: 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.

“That’s very precise what he did, saying look on the west side, look on the south side, go down to Macon,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who is the author of the book called “Redistricting: the Most Political Activity in America.”

“That’s clear guidance. So, it means if the Legislature doesn’t follow it, then he could easily say, ‘Hey, I gave you explicit directions and you ignored them,’ and therefore he could act like the court did over in Alabama and have a special master step in to draw,” he said.

Bullock said the state’s decision to not attempt to temporarily block the judge’s ruling means the maps created during this year’s special session will likely be used in next year’s election. 

But if the state is successful in challenging the ruling, then the next election could be held under the old maps, though this would be an unusual twist.

Who gets protected and who doesn’t?

Black voters tend to support Democratic candidates at high rates, which means Republicans will likely lose legislative seats but hold on to the majority in both the state House and Senate for now.

And targeting white Democrats likely isn’t a productive option, since there are so few in the Senate and none in the Macon area. That means some Republican incumbents could find their political career on the chopping block, says Bullock.

“I don’t see how you comply with Jones’ order and protect all 33 Republican senators,” Bullock said. “If you’ve only got an area where you have Black Democrats and white Republicans, who loses?”

“In those areas where someone is going to be sacrificed, who gets protected?” Bullock also said. “Who’s been on the naughty list and who’s been on the good list with Santa Claus Jon Burns and Santa Claus Burt Jones?”

This all may sound like inside baseball, but it often factors into the decisions that are made during the once-a-decade redistricting.

In 2021, shielding incumbents – for the most part – was seen as a priority. A notable exception was Sharpsburg Republican state Rep. Philip Singleton, who was a critic of then Speaker David Ralston. His district went from 72% for Donald Trump to one that backed Joe Biden with 68% of the vote. He cited the district overhaul when he chose not to seek reelection last year.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest thing to watch is who gets drawn in with whom, on both sides,” said former state Rep. Erick Allen, a Cobb County Democrat who testified for the plaintiffs during the September trial. “I mean, do they use this as an opportunity to draw out Colton Moore who they really do not want in their Senate caucus?” 

Senate Republicans suspended Moore from the caucus this fall because they said the Trenton Republican “knowingly misled” the public by pushing for a special session to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis even when the rest of the caucus and high-ranking GOP leaders said calling a special session for that purpose would be impossible. Willis’ office is prosecuting former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies following a probe into interference in the 2020 presidential election.

House Minority Leader James Beverly said he is pushing to keep Democratic incumbents in the targeted areas from being paired to the extent possible.

The Macon Democrat said he also knows he could see the demographics of his own district change, with the proportion of Black voters likely to shrink some as this all plays out in his own backyard. Currently, Black voters make up about 62% of his constituency.

“At the end of the day, they have the right to draw the maps. They’re in power,” Beverly said. “We might skirmish over some of the little things, but the overall map should be in compliance with the judge’s order without too much hanky-panky.”

Beverly said the last thing either side wants is for lawmakers to wind up not being “the grown-ups in the room” and the judge ultimately drawing the district lines, which is what famously happened in Alabama this year when lawmakers there were ordered to create a new majority or near-majority Black congressional district.

Democrats in both chambers are also expected to propose their own maps. And this time they can draw inspiration from the sample maps from the recent trial that the judge has already found compelling.

And there could also be some political risk for Republicans should they decide to overly focus on drawing maps that protect their majority status, said Chris Grant, who chairs Mercer University’s Department of Political Science.  

“There is decidedly a Republican tilt to this state, but it is not as profound as what the maps currently are producing,” Grant said. “And probably the Republicans, if they double down too hard, they will create a kind of a backlash against them and it will lead to Republicans losing in districts that are even slightly marginal.”

Tightening margins under the Gold Dome

The new legislative maps that emerge, whether from lawmakers or the judge, might not help decide which party is in control after next year’s election. But that doesn’t make them any less consequential.

Smaller GOP majorities in the state House and Senate would make it challenging for Republicans to pass some of the controversial base-pleasing measures that have headlined recent sessions, such as a ban on gender-affirming care for minors and a bill making it easier to challenge library books.

And a look back at the vote tally in the House for the state’s six-week abortion ban shows the already thin margin on hot-button issues. That bill cleared the House in 2019 with just one vote to spare.

“State legislatures have always been the front lines of policymaking and redistricting has major implications for the kinds of policies legislatures are able to advance,” said Kincaid with the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

Some observers say the closer margins that the new maps are expected to bring to the Gold Dome could have a moderating effect on the Legislature. Grant, the Mercer professor, says this as a win for voters.

“It will forge more partisan compromise. It will make for more opportunities to work across the aisle. It should make for a better representation of people because you’re not appealing to a monolith,” Grant said.

“When you have more diversity – whatever way you want to define diversity in a legislative district – the more likely you are to have competitive elections. That means you have more accountability for elected officeholders,” he said.

Practically, this might mean Democrats could have more influence in one or both chambers, and there could be more issues where the Republican leaders need Democratic votes to pass bills, Bullock said.

Ken Lawler, chair of the nonpartisan Fair Districts, said a more leftward lean could also, for example, change the calculus on issues like Medicaid expansion. Georgia is one of 10 states that have not fully expanded the insurance program for the poor and disabled.

“So many policies get enacted by your state legislator that are the day-in, day-out policies, whether it’s reproductive rights, taxes, school spending – all that stuff is local,” Lawler said.

Lawler said he sees the ruling as the biggest case for “fair maps” since the courts struck down Democratic drawn maps in 2004. Democrats had drawn the boundary lines in 2001 as their power in the state was waning.

That’s why Lawler says Fair Districts is advocating for lawmakers to use a light touch, changing only must be altered to comply with the ruling.

“This case is a monumental case in Georgia on the journey towards free and fair elections, which is really what all this stuff is about,” he said. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.