A push by Georgia Republicans to maintain their congressional majority is likely to come down to a decades-old legal question that has never been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court — does federal law protect voting districts where a coalition of nonwhite voters hold sway?

The question was a key part of debate Monday as a Senate committee voted 7-4 along party lines to advance the proposed congressional map. It could be debated Tuesday before the full state Senate.

Republicans pushing redistricting plans in Georgia say such districts aren't protected by the federal Voting Rights Act. Thus, they say it's legal for them to target a district now represented by Democratic U.S. Rep Lucy McBath for a drastic transformation, even as they draw a new Black-majority district elsewhere in metro Atlanta. Such a 1-for-1 switch in districts likely to elect a Democrat would mean Republicans are likely to maintain their 9-5 edge in Georgia's congressional delegation. That's despite nearly half of voters casting ballots for Democrats in recent statewide elections.

Lawmakers were called into special session after U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled in October that Georgia's congressional, state Senate and state House maps violate federal law by diluting Black voting power. Jones mandated Black majorities in one additional congressional district, two additional state Senate districts and five additional state House districts. Jones instructed lawmakers to create the new congressional district on metro Atlanta's western side.

Jones wrote in his order that Georgia can't fix its problems "by eliminating minority opportunity districts elsewhere." Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chairwoman Shelly Echols, a Gainesville Republican, has said repeatedly that Republicans are interpreting minority opportunity to mean majority-Black.

"A minority opportunity district must be a district where a single racial group is a majority," Echols said Monday.

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, ruled in a 1990 case from Hardee County, Florida, that minority coalitions are protected from having their votes diluted. That precedent is likely to be front and center in arguments over whether U.S. District Judge Steve Jones should accept new maps drawn by Georgia lawmakers.

McBath's current 7th District includes southern Gwinnett County and northern Fulton County. No ethnic group has a majority in the district, but Black, Asian and Hispanic voters collectively favor Democrats. That district would be carved up between two Democratic and two Republican incumbents. Lawmakers would instead create a new majority-Black 6th District in Cobb, Douglas, Fulton and Fayette counties.

"District 7 was a minority opportunity district in our view. Yes, it was a coalition. But it was very strongly a minority coalition with around 67% minority voters," said Ken Lawler of Fair Districts GA, a group that opposes partisan gerrymandering in redistricting. He said he disagrees with Echols' interpretation that minority opportunity means only majority Black.

Besides congressional districts, minority coalitions could also be an issue in Georgia's new state legislative maps, which are moving toward final passage.

But the precedents protecting minority coalition districts are on shaky ground. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, had ruled like the 11th Circuit that such districts were protected. But that court has agreed to hear an appeal of a Galveston County, Texas, case seeking to overturn the 5th Circuit's position. And another circuit court in 1996 rejected protection for a minority coalition in a Michigan county.

It's the second time in two years that Republicans have targeted McBath, a gun control activist. McBath, who is Black, initially won election in a majority-white district in Atlanta's northern suburbs. After her district was redrawn to favor Republicans, McBath jumped into the 7th District and beat Democratic incumbent Carolyn Bordeaux in a 2022 primary.

Changes would also be made to six other congressional districts in parts of metro Atlanta. Five districts south and east of Atlanta would remain untouched.
Democrats say the changes seek to evade Jones' goal of enhancing Black representation.

"This really does diminish the Black voice and the Black vote," said Sen. Tonya Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat. "And it's all over this map from District 10 to congressional District 7. This is not a good representation of who we are and where we are going."