The headline over last week’s ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones was that the legislature has to draw a new congressional map with another Black or near-Black district before next year’s election. But what’s under the hood in this ruling may be the bigger story.
With Congress on a continuous teeter-tooter, any possible change in the balance of power is a big story. Looked at purely from a Georgia perspective, however, if Jones’ ruling results in a Democratic pickup, it would only restore the state’s congressional delegation to an 8 to 6 balance between Republicans and Democrats. That’s what it was before Republicans drew a map that shifted the balance to 9 to 5 in their favor at the beginning of this decade.
The ruling also directs the legislature to draw maps that create two new Black-majority state Senate seats and five more Black-majority state House seats. That’s where things get more interesting.
Even if that many seats were flipped with new maps, Republicans would still hold solid majorities in both chambers: 31 to 25 in the Senate and 97 to 83 in the House. The maps’ impact on the makeup of the Republican caucus could be significant because all but two of these newly drawn districts that could flip are in Metro Atlanta.
If you divide the map of the state into 14 parts, as the congressional map does, there’s always the chance that a few cracks will appear in any strategy to gain political advantage. Divide the state into 56 parts (the Senate map) or 180 parts (the House), and the possibility of cracks multiplies. You can talk about the election-day impact of a new congressional map with a lot more certainty than those drawn for the legislature.
In 2011, Republicans held 35 seats in the state Senate and 112 in the state House. Hanging on to their majority since then has involved drawing ever more inventive lines to capture Republican majorities in the expanding and diversifying suburbs of Atlanta.
If the Republicans in the General Assembly hadn’t decided to squeeze one more congressional seat out of the map in 2021, they might have escaped having to redraw their own maps, but that isn’t the way of modern politics. That extra seat they picked up is now part of the precariously thin Republican majority in Congress.
The 516-page ruling reads as if it was written to withstand a vigorous appeal. Jones writes that his conclusions are based on a “thorough and sifting review of the evidence.” That comes across in his lucid discussion of the state’s changing demographics. All of Georgia’s population growth over the past decade can be attributed to the growth of its minority population. The white population over that time declined slightly.
Most of that growth has occurred in Metro Atlanta, which has nearly half of all the voters in the state, a majority of its Black voters, and 38 percent of its polling places.
In the ruling, Jones goes to some lengths to praise the state for its racial progress. He’s also quite specific about what changes he wants in the maps and sets a brisk deadline for the legislature to get them done. Gov. Brian Kemp has called a special session for Nov. 29, and the maps are due by Dec. 8.
Alabama has already held a special session in which it defied a federal court ruling and produced a map that was promptly thrown out and replaced with one drawn by the court. Georgia will probably get through its special session with much less drama and a cleaner map, but it will be interesting to see what interest groups weigh in at the session and whether any longtime friendships come to an end.
Jones’ ruling calls for a Black-majority congressional and state House seat in Atlanta’s western suburbs, two Senate seats and two House seats south of Atlanta, and two House seats around Macon. But it’s hard to say how that will affect the shape of adjoining districts and whose feathers will get ruffled in the process.
The Associated Press had a good story this week, keyed on next month’s elections in Mississippi, about how turnout has cratered in legislative districts around the country where gerrymandering has suppressed competition. It will be a happy outcome if this ruling helps reverse that trend.