Weekend read: The makings of maps

Reps. Al Williams, left, Sam Park and Chuck Efstration on the final day of the 2023 special session. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Reps. Al Williams, left, and Chuck Efstration shake hands on the final day of the 2023 special session. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

Dec 09, 2023

How the Georgia General Assembly pushed through racial innuendo and party politics to create redistricting maps that some say, in the end, may not pass muster

ATLANTA – Georgia Minority House Leader James Beverly was fuming as he took the podium in the House well Thursday.

“The Senate in their arrogance threw a couple of hand grenades into the House and then walked away as if they didn’t do it,” the Democratic representative told his peers, referring to a couple of controversial issues the House had to deal with before taking up the Senate-approved congressional map. The Senate had already dispensed of its redistricting duties days before.

Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, discusses a Democratic amendment to the proposed House electoral map with House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chair Rob Leverett, R-Elberton. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

“Let’s take this map and rip it up because a judge is going to do the same thing I suspect. Why don’t we, as a House, stand for something in this moment?  I oppose this map because this ain’t a Georgia map. This is an Alabama map. I feel, ladies and gentlemen, that SB 3 EX [the congressional map’s bill] takes us down the Alabama path. They want us to blatantly and intentionally defy the federal court’s order that found our congressional map in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

“This map, this hand grenade they’ve  thrown, they’re putting us on a sinking ship right  before a holiday vacation.  While they’re somewhere, maybe on an island, having a good old time for the last couple of days, we’re sitting here doing the people’s work. So I respectfully urge you to vote no,” Beverly said. 

Rep. Rob Leverett, his voice strained from days of heading the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, hurled his own salvo in defense of the map.

“This notion that we’re throwing plans up here that cavalierly don’t comply with the order or that follow the example of our good neighbors to the west [Alabama] is just particularly offensive,” the Republican said. “That is the bitterest pill right there to be accused of being like our friends to the west. That is really a low blow I would submit to you. My goal this whole session has been… to do everything opposite from what they [Alabama] did. And I don’t think you can say that we are being like Alabama when we are passing a map that includes an additional majority Black congressional district.” 

Alabama became the cautionary tale during Georgia’s redistricting session because a court-appointed special master was brought in recently to redo Alabama’s congressional map after state lawmakers failed to create two majority-Black congressional districts.

Despite the heated debate, the proposed congressional map passed the House shortly before lunch Wednesday by a vote of 98-71, ending seven days of a redistricting process that carried, at times, racially charged undertones.

A Dec. 20 showdown?

Georgia’s seven-day redistricting efforts could all come to a head on Dec 20. 

That’s when U.S. District Court Judge Steven Jones will see if Georgia legislators provided ample racial remedies to their 2021 Senate, House and congressional maps. Jones ruled in October that Georgia’s maps violated federal voting rights laws by diluting the voting power of Black voters and told the state it had until Dec. 8 to fix them.

Ironically, the congressional map – the Georgia General Assembly’s final redistricting task – could put Georgia at risk of facing the same fate of Alabama, which ended up having a special master redo its map in a third attempt to get it right. Georgia legislators  of all racial and political stripes repeatedly  invoked Alabama’s situation in the hopes of avoiding  the same fate.

CHARLES S. BULLOCK, III, holds the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science and is Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
Charles Bullock, professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. (Credit: University of Georgia)

“The map which is most vulnerable, the one that Jones would be most likely to object to, is probably the congressional map,” University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock, the nation’s preeminent scholar on redistricting, told State Affairs.

Jones’ 516-page order, Bullock said, made two things clear:  create new majority-Black districts in the legislative and congressional maps and “the state cannot remedy the Section 2 violations described herein by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere in the plans.” In other words, do not disrupt or change existing districts where Black voters have opportunities to vote for candidates of their choice.

The congressional map the Georgia General Assembly approved and sent to Gov. Brian Kemp creates a new majority-Black 6th District  while dismantling the 7th District. No single racial or ethnic group is the majority in the 7th but the coalition of Blacks, Latinx and Asians in the  suburban Atlanta District tend to vote Democrat. The existing 7th District is represented by U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black. Considered a rising star,  political observers say it’s not surprising that her district has been targeted.

“It’s bad what they’re doing to Lucy McBath,” said Sen. Gail Davenport, District 44, which represents Clayton and DeKalb counties. Under the new Senate map, the percentage of Blacks in the  district falls to 60%, from over 70%, she said.

Davenport, a Democrat,  faces her own set of challenges under the new maps approved this week. After serving 15 years in District 44, she’ll be moving to the proposed new District 17 where she will represent voters in Henry and Clayton counties. 

Davenport likens this round of redistricting to political musical chairs, where all lawmakers did was change district numbers, she said.

McBath’s district is now divided among four districts in the proposed new congressional map, with a new majority-Black district created to the city’s west. Both the old and new congressional maps have nine majority-white districts which are now held by Republicans, according to Politico.

“So my expectation is that would be what the hearing would focus on,” Bullock said. “Is there a new congressional district on the westside of Atlanta? Yes, there is the new 6th district. I think the state would say, ‘You know, Judge, we’ve done it, we did it there. Where I would think the plaintiffs would come back and say, ‘Yes, judge, but they ignored that other part because look what they did to Lucy McBath’s district’.”

Georgia Republicans passed state legislative maps that add a few majority Black districts but still maintain GOP control. 

  • The approved Senate map adds two majority-Black districts, but has “no impact at all,” Bullock said, noting there’s no change in power.
  • The approved House map creates five new majority-Black districts in Metro Atlanta; and near Macon, the Democrats gained only two seats.
  • Georgia will now have four majority-Black congressional districts, along with a district just below that 50% mark. All five lean toward  Democrats.

The congressional map takes on significance beyond Georgia, Bullock said. Alabama has gained a second majority-Black district. There’s potential for another Democratic district in Louisiana and possibly in New York with the ouster of U.S. Rep George Santos.

“You’re narrowing what was already a narrow, miniscule Republican advantage in the U.S. House,” Bullock said.

Aside from producing a questionable congressional map, this latest redistricting round showcased lingering underlying racial tension mixed in with the usual partisan politics in the State House in a city that has long prided itself on being the “City Too Busy To Hate.”

In the Senate, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Gloria Butler, a member of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, said she was “disappointed” that the committee used “two processes” in dealing with the Senate district map and the Democrats’ alternative plan. Committee members didn’t question the Senate plan but grilled the Democrats’ plan before voting to approve the Senate plan. 

The vote was split along racial and party lines. Democrats and voting rights and community activists also complained there wasn’t enough time given to reviewing and making public comments on the various maps.


Clearly, Georgia as a whole has evolved from the days when a racial segregationist was governor and Blacks in southern states had to recite  the preamble to the U.S. Constitution or guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to vote.

 Some political observers point to Georgia voters’ ability to elect a Black senator and representative to Congress and wonder if the Voting Rights Act is still necessary today.

Obviously, Judge Jones thinks otherwise.

“The Court reiterates that Georgia has made great strides since 1965 towards equality in voting,” Jones wrote in his ruling, referring to the year the Voting Rights Act passed. “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.”

But some observers wonder if the state has truly evolved, given legislative enactments made in recent years. 

Case in point: Georgia’s controversial Election Integrity Act intended to overhaul problems within the state election system. Critics say parts of the law impede voters, particularly people of color. For example, it limits the use of ballot drop boxes, cuts the time people have to request absentee ballots, shortens runoff elections, and makes it a crime for outside groups to give food or water to voters waiting in line.

The access to voting and making sure people’s votes count may not be Jim Crow 2.0, as some critics have claimed, but the impediments have become more nuanced.

Andrea Young of ACLU. (Credit: Tammy Joyner)

“It’s a shell game. They’re playing games. It’s just not responsive to the judge’s order,” Andrea Young, ACLU of Georgia’s executive director, told State Affairs, shortly after the proposed legislative plans were introduced. Young is the daughter of former Atlanta Mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young. 

Which brings us back to Georgia’s redistricting efforts and the unspoken animus  that unfolded in the chambers during the special session.

“Well, it is shape-shifted and it’s more complex. So yeah, we’re still dealing with racism. It looks different than it did 50 or 60 years ago,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie told State Affairs. “So you are not looking at outright attempts to just restrict a whole class of people from voting, you’re looking at structural measures that on the surface appear to be racially neutral that may have the subtle impact of depressing the Black vote enough that it could be consequential in close elections. The absence of certain voters could be consequential in close elections.”

A close election is what put Joe Biden in the White House with the help of Georgia in 2020. It was the first time the state put a Democrat in the White House in nearly 30 years. And that was largely due to population growth and demographic shifts

Georgia’s population grew by more than one million over the last decade. Most of that growth – 750,000 – were people of color; Blacks account for about 600,000 of those newcomers. A large portion of them moved to metro Atlanta’s southside counties such as Henry, Fayette and Clayton, for jobs, lower cost of living and mild weather. Many came from progressive states like California and New York. 

At the same time, demographers  saw a drop in white voter share. Yet the Republican-led General Assembly did not create 2021 political maps that reflected the growing diversity occurring in parts of the state like south metro Atlanta.

Once known for the Atlanta Motor Speedway and as the muse for Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With The Wind,” metro Atlanta’s southside has transformed.

A little over 30 years ago, it was not unusual to see the Ku Klux Klan openly  handing out leaflets on Tara Boulevard in Clayton County, which now has a Black population nearing 75%.  Nearly 300 acres of  farmland in Fayette County — where Black residents successfully sued to end an at-large voting system — is now home to international movie studio Trilith, maker of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” (Tyler Perry Studios is right up the road in southwest Atlanta.)  Many Blacks have since moved to the county, living in mansions and mini-mansions with one-acre lots.

In Henry County, Republican June Wood became the first Black person, in 2016, to claim the county’s top seat as county commission chair. Carlotta Harrell, another Black woman, holds the post today. Henry’s county seat, McDonough, took a hit on the new maps. In one case, the city was split several ways.

“I don’t know what the poor city did to this committee, but McDonough deserves to stay together at least in one map,” Stephanie Ali, policy director with New Georgia Project Action Fund, told the Senate redistricting committee earlier this week  when it was considering the congressional map. “But we are seeing county seats all along the metro areas split by these congressional districts, which means that these cities will have very little power to weigh in when they need something from their congresspeople.”

Henry County resident Octavia Coleman told the House redistricting committee that the proposed congressional map put the 68%  Black city of McDonough in District 10, which is mostly white. She said the House and Senate Democratic maps allowed for racially inclusive representation.

Coleman is one of the very people this week’s redistricting session centered around. Voting and civil rights groups that appeared before the House and Senate redistricting committees repeatedly urged lawmakers to recognize Black voters like Coleman on their proposed maps as having some level of voting influence.

The Legislature ultimately chose the Republican-drawn maps.

Eric Johnson, project director overseeing construction of the Hyundai EV Plant in Bryan County. He is the former Senate minority leader and then Senate president pro tem.

“No redistricting is ever fun for either side,” former Sen. Eric Johnson told State Affairs. “Careers are at stake. And while you think you have a say in it, lawyers have a tremendous say so in it and then, of course, leadership.”

Johnson should know. 

He took the state to court over maps created during the 2001 redistricting process.  At the time, the Democrats led the General Assembly. A three-judge panel ultimately was brought in to redraw the state’s congressional map.

“They used unconstitutional measures to maintain control of the Legislature and the congressional delegation,” recalled Johnson, a Republican who was Senate Minority Leader at the time. Johnson has since retired from politics and is currently overseeing the construction of the Hyundai plant in Savannah.

Bullock has tracked Georgia’s various redistricting cycles for the past 50 years and he said the 2001 maps were the worst maps  he has ever seen.

“Those were just outrageous,” Bullock recalled. “The Democrats were desperately trying to hold on to power. The state was becoming Republican very rapidly. So they [Democrats] had to pull out all the stops. It was just the strangest thing you’ve ever seen.”

The Republicans have now been in control of the Legislature some two decades in Georgia – 20  years in the Senate; 18 years in the House. 

Consequently, Democrats were hoping this special redistricting session would “help them inch closer to perhaps reclaiming a majority,” Bullock said.

In the end, he said, “nobody has clean hands when you start looking at what they’ve [Democrats and Republicans] done in the past.”

Have questions? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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