If the word “redistricting” is giving you deja vu, you’re remembering correctly. Georgia just drew new district maps in 2021, part of the regular redistricting process that follows the once-a-decade U.S. Census. But in October, a federal judge threw out those maps, calling them racially discriminatory, and instructed Georgia lawmakers to draw new ones. Now, it’s back to the drawing board.
On Wednesday, the legislature convened for a special session to draw the new district maps. To help you understand what’s happening, here are some of your redistricting questions, answered.
What is redistricting?
Redistricting is the process of dividing the state’s population into separate districts, each represented by a state or U.S. lawmaker. In Georgia, we have district maps for the State House, State Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives; our two U.S. Senators are elected by the whole state, like the governor, so there is no map for those representatives.
Redistricting typically happens after the census tallies the state population, because the constitution requires each district to include roughly the same number of people. Demographic changes, like more people leaving rural areas for cities, must result in new maps that reflect those shifts. But redistricting can also happen if a judge strikes down those maps as unconstitutional, as in this case.
What happened to the 2021 district maps?
After the 2020 census revealed large population shifts in Georgia, state lawmakers gathered for a special redistricting session in November 2021. After some tense negotiations, the Republican-led legislature approved new district maps for the State House, State Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives. The maps passed on a party-line vote over protests from Democrats, who said they diluted the power of Black voters, a group that overwhelmingly votes Democratic.
After Governor Brian Kemp signed them into law in early 2022, several voting rights groups sued the state over the maps, calling them racially discriminatory. They argued the districts violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in state voting practices, including drawing districts.
Three of those challenges were bundled into a single lawsuit, which landed in federal court in front of Judge Steve Jones. Jones allowed the maps to be used for the 2022 election, ruling it was too close to voting time to switch them out. But after a trial in September, Judge Jones struck down the maps, agreeing that they violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Georgia’s growing Black population. He ordered Georgia to draw new maps with more majority-Black districts by December 8, warning that he would do it himself if the legislature failed to act. The state has appealed his ruling, but in the meantime, Governor Kemp called a special session to make new maps.
“Georgia has made great strides since 1965 towards equality in voting,” Judge Jones wrote in his ruling. “However, the evidence before this Court shows that Georgia has not reached the point where the political process has equal openness and equal opportunity for everyone.”
How were the old maps racially discriminatory?
Most of Georgia’s population growth was caused by non-white people moving to the Atlanta metro area, but according to the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit, Georgia lawmakers drew the maps to dilute the power of these new, likely Democratic voters—a process known as gerrymandering.
The lawsuits accused Republicans of dividing Black voters into separate districts where they would be outnumbered by likely Republicans voters, a gerrymandering technique sometimes called “cracking,” as well as corralling them into only a few districts, known as “packing.” The plaintiffs pointed to examples like U.S. House District Six, a competitive swing district won by Democrat Lucy McBath in 2020: During redistricting, Republican lawmakers redrew the lines to make it much more white—and much more favorable to Republicans—while herding more diverse neighborhoods into the nearby seventh district, which was already a Democratic stronghold.
The lawsuit plaintiffs—Black Georgia voters represented by organizations like the ACLU—argued that the gerrymandered maps resulted in an unrepresentative government. While around 51 percent of Georgians identify as non-Hispanic white, the Georgia General Assembly and the U.S. Congressional delegation are both 64 percent white. Judge Jones agreed—he ordered the state to add one more majority-Black U.S. House district in west metro Atlanta, two more majority-Black State Senate districts, and five more in the State House.
Jones’s ruling relies on the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination by race in state voting policies. It was passed in 1965, when Southern states often passed racist laws like poll taxes or literacy tests to discourage Black Americans from voting. The law isn’t about partisan fairness: As the Supreme Court has made clear time and again, gerrymandering that favors one political party or the other isn’t unconstitutional. What is against the rules is gerrymandering that disenfranchises Black voters, and that is the issue Jones found with Georgia’s 2021 maps.
Voting rights advocates are hailing the case as a major victory. “This Federal court order is the most significant blow against gerrymandering—in this case racial gerrymandering—since a 2004 Federal Court decision struck down the partisan gerrymander produced by the Democratic-controlled state legislature in 2001,” says Ken Lawler, chairman of the board at Fair Districts Georgia.
Republican leaders were less thrilled: Josh McKoon, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “It is simply outrageous that one far-left federal judge is invalidating the will of the elected representatives of the people of Georgia.”
Was the U.S. Supreme Court involved in this?
This lawsuit didn’t go to the U.S. Supreme Court, but a recent decision provided some guidance for Jones’s federal court ruling. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority has significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act, making it harder to prove racial discrimination in state voting laws.
In a surprise ruling last June, however, the Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which related to gerrymandered maps. In Allen v. Milligan, the Supreme Court found Alabama had diluted Black voter power with unfairly drawn maps, ordering them to create another majority-Black district. That ruling paved the way for gerrymandering challenges in other states, including Georgia; in his decision, Judge Jones referenced Milligan multiple times to explain why he struck down Georgia’s maps.
What happens now?
During the special session, Republicans and Democrats will again spar over the creation of legislative districts. Early this week, Republicans unveiled new proposed maps for the State House and State Senate. While they comply with Jones’s order to create new majority-Black districts, both maps do so largely by carving up majority-white Democratic districts, so they’re unlikely to significantly change the balance of partisan power in the General Assembly. Democrats have said they’ll introduce their own maps, but with minorities in both chambers, it’s unlikely they’ll make much headway.
Voting rights advocates want to see lawmakers create fair maps that reduce gerrymandering and equalize the power of Black voters. “We believe that changes should be limited to those required to implement the new Black majority districts, with neighboring districts adjusted to equalize population,” says Lawlor of Fair Districts Georgia. “The legislature should reject any attempt by members of either party to incorporate other changes for partisan political purposes.”
Meanwhile, Georgia is appealing Jones’s ruling, so it’s possible the maps he threw out could be reinstated. But if his decision is upheld, then the newly created maps will be implemented ahead of the 2024 election. Republicans will almost certainly keep control of the state legislature with either set of maps, but redistricting could signal change in the U.S. House, where the Republican majority is razor thin: a newly created Black-majority district in Georgia could help Democrats net another seat, possibly allowing them to retake the House in 2024.