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Federal judge accepts redrawn Georgia congressional and legislative districts that will favor GOP

FILE - Georgia Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, looks at a map of proposed state House districts before a House hearing, Nov. 29, 2023, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Dec. 12, plaintiffs who successfully sued to overturn Georgia's legislative and congressional districts asked a federal judge to reject Georgia's new Republican-backed maps. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday accepted new Georgia congressional and legislative voting districts that protect Republican partisan advantages, saying the creation of new majority-Black voting districts solved the illegal minority vote dilution that led him to order maps to be redrawn.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones, in threeseparate but similarly worded orders, rejected claims that the new maps didn't do enough to help Black voters. Jones said he couldn't interfere with legislative choices, even if Republicans moved to protect their power. The maps were redrawn in a recent special legislative session after Jones in October ruled that a prior set of maps illegally harmed Black voters.

The approval of the maps sets the stage for them to be used in 2024 elections. They're likely to reproduce the current 9-5 Republican majority among Georgia's 14 congressional seats, while retaining GOP majorities in the state Senate and House.

The maps added Black-majority districts that Jones ordered, including one in Congress, two in the state Senate and five in the state House. But in the case of some Democratic-held districts that don't have Black majorities, they redrew the maps to favor Republicans. One of those is Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath's 7th District in the Atlanta suburbs.

McBath has vowed to stay in the House.

“I won’t let Republicans decide when my time in Congress is over,” she wrote in a Thursday fundraising email. But that means she's likely to have to run in a new district for the second election in a row, after Republicans drew her out of the district she originally won.

It’s one in a series of redistricting actions across the South after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1964 Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for Black voters to win changes from courts. But while a case in Alabama will almost certainly result in another Democrat joining its congressional delegation, the Georgia case has played out differently.

That's because Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act protects minority voters, but does not stop Republicans from tinkering with Democratic-held districts with white majorities or where no ethnic group is in the majority. So, Georgia Republicans redrew maps while giving up few seats to Democrats. The state Senate map, in addition to the congressional map, is likely to maintain the same GOP margin of control. The state House map is likely to result in Democrats picking up one or two seats.

The voters and civic groups who sued to get the old maps overturned claimed the new ones didn't fix problems in the districts Jones had labeled as illegal. But Jones said lawmakers weren't confined to reworking only those districts, and that plaintiffs' objections weren't enough for him to reject the lawmakers maps. If he had, he could have either adopted maps offered by the plaintiffs or drawn his own.

Jones echoed the state’s claim that approving the redrawn maps was not a “beauty contest" in his ruling.

“To put it more starkly, plaintiffs contend that their illustrative plans are better remedies than the state’s remedial plans," he wrote. "Because this court cannot intrude upon the domain of the General Assembly, however, it declines plaintiffs invitation to compare the 2023 remedial plans with plans preferred by plaintiffs and crown the illustrative plans the winners.”

Arguments on the congressional map focused on whether it was legal for lawmakers to dissolve McBath's district in Gwinnett and Fulton counties — while at the same time drawing a new Black-majority district west of downtown Atlanta in Fulton, Douglas, Cobb and Fayette counties. The plaintiffs argue that the state, by wiping out the current 7th District, is newly violating the guarantee of opportunities for minority voters spelled out in Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The 7th District is majority nonwhite, but not majority Black, with substantial shares of Hispanic and Asian voters as well.

But Jones had expressed skepticism about whether he had enough evidence to rule that Black, Hispanic and Asian voters in the 7th District act together cohesively to elect their choices, or whether evidence showed white voters uniformly opposed those choices.

In his order, Jones reiterated that all the evidence at trial covered Black voters and not minority coalition districts. He told the plaintiffs they'd have to file a new lawsuit if they want to pursue their claims that wiping out McBath's current district illegally harms minority voters.

“This is the type of challenge to a remedial redistricting plan that demands development of significant new evidence and therefore is more appropriate in a separate proceeding," Jones wrote.

Jeff Amy, The Associated Press

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