ATLANTA - Georgia Republicans on Thursday pushed forward new legislative maps that would preserve their majorities in the state House and Senate, while still not revealing how they want to redraw Georgia's 14 congressional districts.
A state Senate committee voted 7-5 along party lines to advance a new Senate map, while a House committee voted 9-5 to advance a new House map. Both bills advance to their full chambers, which could debate them Friday.
Democrats and some outside groups targeted the Senate map as particularly flawed, saying it fails to create significant opportunities for Black voters in the 10 districts that a federal judge identified as violating the law. But Democrats also question the House map, in part because it would alter or eliminate two districts in which no ethnic group is a majority.
Lawmakers are meeting in special session after U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled in October that Georgia's legislative and congressional maps violated federal law by diluting the power of Black voters. Jones ordered Georgia lawmakers to draw additional Black majority districts, including one in Congress, two in the state Senate and five in the state House.
Republicans have proposed maps that would create the additional required number of Black majority districts. Because Black voters in Georgia strongly support Democrats, that could strengthen the party's position. But Republicans have proposed other changes to limit their losses. The proposed Senate map would likely maintain the current 33-23 Republican margin by shuffling districts so that two Democratic-held districts with white majorities would instead have Black majorities. The House, now 102-78 in favor of Republicans, could gain two additional Democrats because of the five new Black districts. But changes to one or two competitive House districts held by Democrats could tip their balance to Republicans.
Democrats said the Senate map fails because it creates little chance for Black voters to elect new senators in the 10 districts Jones found to be illegal.
"Where a majority minority district has to be created, you can't satisfy it by moving people around in other areas where no voter discrimination was found," said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat. "You have not cured where the court said voter discrimination is found and the process is not equally open to Black voters."
Parent herself would lose her white-majority district in suburban DeKalb County and instead be drawn into a Black-majority district.
Republicans, though, took issue with a Senate map that Democrats offered, noting that an analysis by Fair Districts GA, a group that advocates redistricting reform, finds Democrats would be likely to win two additional seats, reducing Republican advantage in the Senate to 31-25.
"So it's just pure happenstance that the Democratic map happens to create two new Democratic districts, giving a partisan advantage, whereas the chairman's map left it exactly the same as the current political split in the state?" asked Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican.
That's a key issue because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that partisan gerrymandering is legal and that federal courts should not intervene to block it. It's only minority voters who have protection under the Voting Rights Act.
In the House, Democratic Minority Leader James Beverly of Macon noted that if Jones refuses to accept maps passed by Republicans, he would appoint a special master to draw maps on behalf of the court and might pay no attention to incumbency or political considerations.
"Then every last one of us, 180 of us, are in jeopardy," Beverly warned as he pitched a Democratic House map.
Republicans pointed out that one of the new districts proposed in the Democratic plan has a Black voting population of only 48%, less than the majority Jones mandated. Democrats argued that Jones would likely accept the map. But House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chairman Rob Leverett, an Elberton Republican, was dubious.
"We can't check all five new majority-Black districts," Leverett said of the Democratic plan.