The state Senate passed new congressional district maps Wednesday, the last major event of this year’s special legislative session. Gov. Nathan Deal will sign off on them and then submit them to the federal government for approval.
Under the Voting Rights Act, the federal government must approve any changes to Georgia’s election maps.
The state can submit the maps to the U.S. Department of Justice for review or Georgia can go through the federal courts.
Rep. Roger Lane of Darien chairs the redistricting committee. He says one variable is the Justice Department’s standard for judging the maps.
“They could change the standards we have been operating under for the last 10 or 20 years and say, ‘This is a new standard,’ such as the one the Democrats have advocated for," he said in an interview. "You have to weigh that ---- what you think the Department of Justice might do in those regards – versus what a court might do if you go to court and might could get it resolved in court easier than going through the Department of Justice.”
The governor or the state Attorney General can decide how to submit the maps. A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal says Deal will meet with the Attorney General and legislative leaders Thursday to discuss the options.
The state plans to submit the maps by Oct. 1.
Democrats have said they will challenge the maps because they believe the new districts violate the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, Atlanta Democrat, Sen. Jason Carter, predicted Wednesday that the maps will be "struck down" by the courts. He said he had tried unsuccessfully to understand the Republicans' strategy in complying with the map.
"As I sat with [Congressman] John Lewis before he testified before the House Reapportionment Committee, I realized, they don't want to follow the Voting Rights Act," he said during floor debate in the Senate. "They want to change the Voting Rights Act because they don't like the result."
The federal election law protects minority voters at the polls, and it requires Georgia and other Southern states to follow special provisions to bolster minority electoral strength.
For example, the state can’t eliminate districts where minorities comprise more than 50 percent of the voting-age population. That’s called retrogression.
Republicans say Georgia will have a greater number of majority-minority districts than ever before.
But Democrats say that’s not the only relevant measure. Carter says under the Act’s 2006 reauthorization, Congress defined the standard for states like Georgia that have disenfranchised minority voters.
“The new amendment says you focus exclusively not on all of these different circumstances, but exclusively on the ability to elect the candidate of choice,” he said in an interview.
Under that standard, he says, legislators need to consider so-called cross-over districts where minorities are not in the majority but can form multi-racial coalitions with other voters.
Carter says under the new maps, Republicans have diluted minority voting strength in many such districts.
But Republicans say a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case says states don’t have to consider cross-over districts.
“It’s a difficult principle to apply and the court recognizes that we are not wading into that," Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens says. "It’s very clear there is no protection against retrogression other than in majority-minority districts.”
This is the crux of the legal dispute, Sen. Carter says.
During floor debate Wednesday, Carter said the Court’s decision doesn’t apply to Georgia and other states with a history of isolating minority voters. But he says Republicans are betting the Court will extend the decision.
“They decided to say, ‘We’re going to take a view of the Voting Rights Act that is new and that has not been sanctioned by a court, and use that’,” he said.
By all accounts, the maps are headed to court.