ATLANTA - A trial challenging voting district maps in Georgia concluded Thursday with the state arguing that court intervention on behalf of Black voters isn't needed, while the plaintiffs argued that Black voters are still fighting opposition from white voters and need federal help to get a fair shot.
If U.S. District Judge Steve Jones rules for the challengers, one of Georgia's 14 U.S. House seats, plus multiple state Senate and state House seats, could be redrawn to contain majorities of Black residents. That could shift control of those seats to Democrats from Republicans.
The closing arguments focused on the question of how far Georgia has come since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, whether more intervention is needed and whether proposals brought forward by the plaintiffs are so race-conscious as to be unconstitutional. Section 2 of that law says voting district lines can't result in discriminatory effects against minority voters.
The plaintiffs acknowledged that Black voters in Georgia have seen some success, but say the maps drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly still illegally suppress Black voting power.
"Minority vote dilution does not need to be accompanied by pitchforks and burning crosses and literacy tests for it to result in minority vote dilution," plaintifss' lawyer Abha Khanna said.
But the state countered that lawmakers have provided Black people with equal political opportunities and that when Black-preferred candidates lose, it's because of partisan preferences or flawed candidates.
"Once you get to a point where participation is equally open, then it's just party politics, everyone making their best case to the voters," lawyer Bryan Tyson said.
The Georgia case is part of a wave of litigation after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year stood behind its interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting a challenge to the law by Alabama.
Courts in Alabama and Florida ruled recently that Republican-led legislatures had unfairly diluted the voting power of Black residents. Legal challenges to congressional districts are also ongoing in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
"My decision is going to affect a whole lot of people," Jones said after closing arguments. The judge, who is deciding the case without a jury, said he will issue a ruling as soon as possible. Jones made a preliminary ruling in 2022 that some parts of Georgia's redistricting plans probably violate federal law
Speed is important because if Jones rules for the plaintiffs, he would order the General Assembly to redraw maps before the 2024 elections. With appeals likely, time is already growing short before the March 2024 qualifying deadline for May primaries when all congressional and state legislative seats will be on the ballot.
The plaintiffs argued Thursday that Georgia's failure is clear after the state added nearly 500,000 Black residents between 2010 and 2020 but drew no new Black-majority state Senate districts and only two additional Black-majority state House districts. They also say Georgia should have another Black majority congressional district.
"What they want is what they're entitled to, which is a fair chance," said Khanna, who added that the trial showed how Georgia "dodges and weaves" to avoid its legal obligations.
But Tyson pointed to the election of Democrat Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate as proof that candidates favored by Black voters can win.
"What is the end point of what Section 2 requires of Georgia?" Tyson asked. He said that while the General Assembly's enacted plans were conscious of race, the plaintiffs' plans crossed the line to illegally drawing maps mostly based on race.
"The goal is to get to a point where we're a society that's no longer largely fixated on race," Tyson said.
Ari Savitzky, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the evidence presented showed that at least in the parts of Georgia that plaintiffs focused on, racially polarized voting shows intervention under the law is still needed.
"When racial division no longer structures our politics, that's when it ends," Savitzky said.