A process to redistribute Georgia’s electoral districts begins with a dispute over what federal law requires for black voters

Contenders for Georgia's electoral district maps told a federal judge Tuesday that the state has a legal obligation to provide black voters with more political opportunities, while the state implied the plaintiffs are seeking to enforce illegal racial discrimination of congressional and legislative districts.

The opening arguments began as part of what is expected to be a two-week negotiation. If the challengers win, the Democrats could win one of Georgia's 14 seats in the US House of Representatives, as well as several seats in the Senate and state House of Representatives.

The case is part of a spate of legal battles unfolding after the US Supreme Court backed its interpretation of the Voting Rights Act earlier this year, denying Alabama's challenge to the law. Section 2 of the federal law states that constituency boundaries must not discriminate against minority voters, who must be given the opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice. A three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that Alabama's attempts to redefine its congressional districts had failed.

US District Judge Steve Jones is hearing the Georgia case without a jury. Jones tentatively ruled in 2022 that some parts of Georgia's redistribution plans likely violate federal law, but the trial is needed to solidify the facts for a verdict. Jones could direct the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly to redesignate counties to conform with the law.

Plaintiffs argue that Georgia's failure is evident after the state added nearly 500,000 black residents between 2010 and 2020, but created no new black-majority Senate districts and only two additional black-majority districts in the House of Representatives. They also argue that Georgia should have one more black-majority congressional district.

“Black voters have been excluded from new political opportunities, even though new black-majority districts could have been drawn,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “The court can and should guarantee that black voters are not denied this opportunity to participate on an equal footing.”

Plaintiffs' attorneys said that white voters continue to vote against candidates favored by black voters, proving that the Voting Rights Act's remedy to confiscate black-majority constituencies is still needed.

“The Voting Rights Act was designed for cases like this,” Lakin said.

But Bryan Tyson, defending the state's maps, argued that “the facts in Georgia are very different from those in Alabama,” prompting the latest court ruling. Tyson cited the election of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the Senate, and President Joe Biden's success in capturing Georgia's 16 electoral college votes in 2020, as evidence that black-favored candidates can win.

“If Georgia's electoral system is not equally open to black voters, what would need to change?” Tyson asked. “If the system is not equally open right now, where is the non-compliance with the Voting Rights Act?”

Tyson argued that the plaintiffs' proposed plans crossed the line between legally knowing the breed and illegally creating maps based primarily on breed. The plaintiffs deny this allegation. William Cooper, an expert hired by the plaintiffs to draw alternative maps, testified that it was possible to create more black-majority districts.

In creating the alternate maps, Cooper said he considered a number of traditional factors in borough drawing, including reducing the number of boroughs, cities and constituencies split between boroughs.

“Race didn't dominate,” he said.

Tyson also reiterated the state's argument that Georgia's maps were created to protect incumbents and prioritize Republican majorities, motives that are legal under federal law. He argued that recent voting behavior shows that party, not race, is the most important factor in motivating voters.

“One cannot assume race when partisanship is an equally plausible explanation,” he said.

But Abha Khanna, another attorney for the plaintiffs, dismissed Tyson's arguments, saying his focus on partisanship and recent electoral success for blacks in Georgia ignores the state's obligations under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Khanna said the state seems to think that “the Supreme Court will change the law, move the target posts, and even relieve the state of Georgia of its Section 2 obligations, if it wishes it very strongly enough.”