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Georgia state Senate map debate focuses on voting rights

November 4, 2021 GMT
FILE - Georgia Senate redistricting chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, left, looks on at the state Capitol in Atlanta as House redistricting chair Bonnie Rich, R- Suwanee, speaks on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Kennedy on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, presented a state Senate redistricting plan that was attacked as racially biased by Democrats and liberal-leaning groups. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)
FILE - Georgia Senate redistricting chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, left, looks on at the state Capitol in Atlanta as House redistricting chair Bonnie Rich, R- Suwanee, speaks on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Kennedy on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, presented a state Senate redistricting plan that was attacked as racially biased by Democrats and liberal-leaning groups. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)
FILE - Georgia Senate redistricting chair John Kennedy, R-Macon, left, looks on at the state Capitol in Atlanta as House redistricting chair Bonnie Rich, R- Suwanee, speaks on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Kennedy on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, presented a state Senate redistricting plan that was attacked as racially biased by Democrats and liberal-leaning groups. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Democrats and liberal-leaning groups on Thursday attacked a Republican plan to redraw districts for the Georgia state Senate as violating the federal Voting Rights Act by unnecessarily dividing minority populations.

It’s a crucial discussion as the state Senate’s Republican majority moves toward voting their preferred map out of committee as early as Friday. The U.S. Supreme Court in the last decade has ruled out challenges based on partisan gerrymandering. But although the court struck down the requirement that Georgia and other areas with a history of racial discrimination get preclearance for new district maps from the U.S. Justice Department, the way remains clear for people to sue in court alleging racial bias after lawmakers pass maps.

Such lawsuits are likely the best opportunity Democrats will have to change a map that could initially produce a 33-23 Republican majority in the Senate, down from 34-22 now. Legislative proceeding are likely to become part of the evidence in any court challenge.

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Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chairman John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, defended the maps from charges of racial bias.

“We’ve also endeavored and ensured that we’ve complied with the Voting Rights Act, creating majority-minority districts and new minority-opportunity districts,” Kennedy said.

But critics, starting with Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, pointed to particular examples they said showed ill intent. Butler focused on Senate District 48, now held by state Sen. Michelle Au of Johns Creek. The GOP plan draws parts of it into whiter areas of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, creating a district more likely to be won by a Republican.

“The proposed plan turns a majority-minority district to a majority-white district,” Butler said of District 48.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, said Butler’s analysis was legally flawed because she was lumping all nonwhite people together and that the Voting Rights Act doesn’t protect minority coalitions. That remains an area of dispute under federal law.

“This is not a voting-rights protected district,” Cowsert said.

Speakers also criticized the continued split of Athens-Clarke County, which makes it possible for all Republicans to represent parts of one Georgia’s most Democratic counties, as well as how Gwinnett County is split.

The map would draw districts now in northern Cobb and Fulton counties into more Republican areas of Cherokee and Bartow counties, likely creating easier paths to reelection for several Republican incumbents.

Kareem El-Hosseiny, government affairs director for the Georgia Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that move would “crack communities in competitive Cobb County by stretching them out further away from Atlanta.”

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Kennedy defended the Cobb moves, saying those areas are communities with common interests, and said some larger counties like Savannah’s Chatham County were split to keep smaller counties whole. The proposed Republican map splits 29 of Georgia’s 159 counties, down from 39 now.

Kennedy also said it’s unfair to focus on any one district.

“Taking any one district out from the rest of the map, and looking at it in a vacuum is not really a realistic or fair way, because each district has a connection to the districts around it,” Kennedy said.

Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, disputed that point, saying map-drawers must look at voting patterns in local areas.

“The ability of communities of color to elect candidates of choice at an equal level to other communities is paramount,” Abhiraman said. “It rules. It’s not something to be balanced against those other factors.”

Fair Districts GA, a group that tries to prevent gerrymandering, graded the Senate proposal as an F, saying it’s far too Republican to reflect the state’s overall partisan balance. The group also faults the map for having only one district where parties are expected to be competitive.

Janet Grant, vice chair of Fair Districts GA, urged Republicans to consider a plan less stacked against Democrats, as well as more districts where both parties would be competitive and at least one more district with enough minority voters to influence outcomes.

Cowsert was dismissive of the group, in part because it relies on modelers at Princeton University to aid in analysis.

“The people who are drawing the maps, who could have built 35 or 36 Republican seats if they wanted to be partisan, instead reduced the number of Republican seats, and Princeton, New Jersey, thinks that’s unfair,” Cowsert said.

There are other considerations in the map. Except for two Republicans running for statewide office, the map protects all Senate incumbents.

Kennedy said the map includes some Democratic suggestions and requests from public hearings, such as an “onion belt” district around Vidalia.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.