In the days before the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the the Voting Rights Act of 1965, state Republicans might not have dared to directly take down a Black incumbent via gerrymandering. Prior to the 2013 decision Holder v. Shelby County, states with a history of racist voter suppression had to obtain Justice Department preclearance for voting and election changes. But the congressional map just approved by Georgia’s legislature, which targeted Congresswoman Lucy McBath’s Sixth Congressional District, makes it clear that GOP state legislators are feeling bolder. While the federal government can still sue states for discriminatory actions under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the process is much slower, and Section 2 is also being undermined pretty steadily by the Supreme Court.
The clear object for Georgia legislators in the current round of redistricting was to convert the current 8-6 Republican advantage in the state’s House delegation to 9-5, despite Georgia’s equally divided partisan allegiances (illustrated so vividly in the extremely close Democratic 2020 sweep of the presidential race and two U.S. Senate runoffs). Without question, they planned to knock out one of the two north Atlanta suburban districts Democrats flipped in the last two cycles. One was the Cobb-Fulton-Dekalb-based Sixth District, which Black gun safety advocate Lucy McBath wrested away from Republican Karen Handel in 2018 and defended by a bigger margin in a 2020 rematch. It had a large and rapidly growing minority population (with Black, Latino and Asian American components), but was still majority white. Then there was the Gwinnett County–based Seventh District won by moderate white Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux in 2020. The Seventh is also currently a white-majority district, but with a larger minority population than the Sixth, albeit one that had produced closer races than the Sixth.
It would have been easier for the GOP to remake the Seventh District to give themselves a solid majority. But instead they went after the Sixth, converting an estimated 10-point Democratic advantage to a 15-point Republican advantage. They then packed minority voters into the Seventh, while removing Bordeaux’s current residence from the district.
In a move she had probably been planning ever since it became obvious Republicans were coming for her, McBath has already announced she will run against Bordeaux in the Seventh. It will be an interesting primary given Bordeaux’s conspicuous centrist deficit-hawk positioning during the long intra-Democratic debate over the Build Back Better legislation (Bordeaux did eventually vote for the bill, but not until she annoyed progressives back home).
The question, though, is whether the gerrymander that produced this situation could be subject to a Section 2 lawsuit for “packing” minority voters into the Seventh, particularly since it eliminated the district of a Black incumbent. The preeminent Democratic voting and election rights litigant Marc Elias thinks so:
The legal defense Republicans will offer is that they actually created a majority-minority district in the Seventh where one did not exist before, while simply enhancing the white majority in the Sixth that has existed for decades. The wild card in any litigation is the devolution in Supreme Court interpretations of Section 2 (notably in last year’s Brnovich v. DNC decision) to give greater deference to state justifications for decisions that might have triggered judicial pushback before today’s conservative super-majority was constituted.
The new Georgia map has a few other interesting wrinkles: a slightly less favorable district for long-time Black incumbent Democrat Sanford Bishop; a new Ninth District in northeast Georgia from which the home of incumbent congressman and Republican fire-breather Andrew Clyde was removed (he now has the choice of moving to run in his current district or trying to take over the Tenth District seat being vacated by another MAGA stalwart, Jody Hice, who is Donald Trump’s chosen instrument for taking out secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a 2022 primary); and some very unhappy voters in Democratic parts of the Sixth District who will now be represented by the terrifying Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Georgia is just one of a number of states where Republican gerrymanders are expected to produce GOP gains in 2022. But its map could trigger litigation that will clarify, for better or worse, the new rules for voting rights reviews of redistricting going forward.