ATLANTA – Georgia Democrats scored minimal gains in the General Assembly in last year’s elections – and even lost one congressional seat – despite population growth during the last decade among Blacks, who tend to vote for Democrats.
But Democratic prospects likely will look a lot better after lawmakers gather under the Gold Dome for a special session starting Wednesday and redraw the state’s legislative and congressional lines on the orders of a federal judge appointed by then-President Barack Obama.
“(Republican incumbents are) either going to end up in districts highly likely to elect a Democrat or in a district with another Republican incumbent,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has written extensively about redistricting. “They will have to decide which Republicans are going to walk the plank.”
The General Assembly’s Republican majorities drew the current maps two years ago in a redistricting exercise legislatures around the country go through every decade following the decennial U.S. Census to account for changes in population that occurred during the previous 10 years.
Almost immediately, civil rights and voting rights groups sued the state, claiming the new district boundaries ignored strong population growth among minorities in Georgia since 2010 and an actual decline in the state’s white population.
“All of Georgia’s population growth in the last decade was attributable to people of color,” said Rahul Garabadu, senior voting rights staff director at the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Georgia could have and – importantly – should have drawn additional Black majority state House and state Senate districts. Not drawing these additional Black majority districts diluted the power of Black voting strength and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones agreed in a ruling last month that ordered the legislature to redraw the 2021 congressional and legislative maps. The lengthy 516-page ruling specifically instructed lawmakers to add one Black majority congressional district, two more Black majority Georgia Senate districts, and five additional state House seats.
“This is a huge win for Black voters in Georgia and for all Georgians who want a level political playing field and progress from the past,” said Ari Savitzky, a lawyer with the national ACLU Voting Rights Project.
The state has appealed Jones’ ruling, but – importantly – did not seek a stay in the order. As a result, the new maps lawmakers draw during the special session will be in use at least during the 2024 elections while the appeal winds its way through the courts.
While majority Republicans lost two state House seats and one state Senate seat in last year’s elections, the congressional map lawmakers drew in 2021 snared one additional GOP seat in Georgia’s U.S. House delegation.
Republicans went from an 8-6 edge to a 9-5 margin by extending Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath’s 6th Congressional District in Atlanta’s northern suburbs further north through heavily Republican Forsyth and Dawson counties and a portion of Cherokee County.
That allowed the GOP’s Rich McCormick, who had lost a 2020 a bid for Congress in Gwinnett County to incumbent Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, to shift his focus to the redrawn 6th District seat last year and win that seat. McBath responded to being drawn an unfriendly district by running against Bourdeaux in the 7th District Democratic primary and capturing the Gwinnett-based seat.
While Jones ruled that five of Georgia’s congressional district maps violate the Voting Rights Act, the action during the upcoming special session is expected to focus on McCormick’s 6th District or the 11th Congressional District centered in portions of Cobb and Cherokee counties represented by GOP Rep. Barry Loudermilk.
Of the two, McCormick is the more likely target, said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. While McCormick is a freshman in the House, Loudermilk has served in Congress since 2015 and before that was a member of the General Assembly.
“Loudermilk’s been around awhile,” Swint said. “He’s bult a base of support.”
Jones was more specific in the portion of last month’s ruling pertaining to legislative seats. The judge ordered the legislature to draw two additional Black majority Georgia Senate seats in the southern portion of metro Atlanta and five more Black majority state House seats – two in the south metro, one in the western portion of the metro region, and two in the Macon area.
Swint said the most vulnerable legislative Republican incumbents in the upcoming redistricting session will be those serving in the areas Jones singled out for new Black majority districts.
But with Republicans currently holding solid majorities in both legislative chambers, there’s little likelihood the new Black majority districts will be enough to give Democrats control of either the House or Senate in the immediate future, he said.
“They think they can get close … by ’28 or so to be in a position to take it then,” Swint said.
The special session isn’t expected to take long. For one thing, Jones’ order gives lawmakers only until Dec. 8 to draw the new congressional and legislative maps.
Bullock said another factor that could allow this round of redistricting to go smoothly is that lawmakers only will be focusing on those parts of the state the judge pointed to in his ruling.
“If you’re in South Georgia, you won’t have to worry about any of these changes,” he said. “It won’t be a complete redraw.”