Judge allows new Georgia political maps to be used this year

ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge said that while it’s likely that some parts of Georgia’s redistricting plans violate federal law, he will allow the new congressional and state legislative maps to be used for this year’s elections because changes at this point would be too disruptive.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones’ 238-page ruling came late Monday in three lawsuits challenging the newly drawn districts that were crafted by state lawmakers and signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. The lawsuits, filed by African American organizations and individual voters, allege the maps weaken the growing electoral strength of communities of color in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs had filed motions for preliminary injunction seeking, among other things, to keep the state from using the new maps during any elections, including this year’s midterms. Jones presided over a six-day hearing on those motions last month.

He wrote in his order that he believes the plaintiffs “have shown that they are likely to ultimately prove that certain aspects of the State’s redistricting plans are unlawful.” But he said changes at this date are “likely to substantially disrupt the election process.”

“The Court finds that the public interest of the State of Georgia would be significantly undermined by altering the election calendar and unwinding the electoral process at this point,” Jones wrote. He added that evidence “showed that elections are complex and election calendars are finely calibrated processes, and significant upheaval and voter confusion can result if changes are made late in the process.”

He noted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly said lower federal courts should not change election rules “on the eve of an election.”

He also expressed concern about a “whiplash” effect if he were to rule the maps must be changed only to be reversed by appellate courts. That “could create even more voter confusion and loss of confidence in the election system.”

Jones mentioned a similar challenge to new maps in Alabama in which the U.S. Supreme Court last month put on hold a lower court ruling that said the state must redraw its congressional districts before the 2022 elections to increase Black voting power.

The three-judge lower court said in its unanimous ruling in late January that the groups of voters who had sued over Alabama’s maps were likely to succeed in showing the state had violated the Voting Rights Act. In halting that ruling, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito, part of the conservative majority, said the lower court’s order for a new map came too close to the 2022 election cycle.

Alabama’s primary is set for May 24, like Georgia’s.

But Jones cautioned in his order that “this is an interim, non-final ruling that should not be viewed as an indication of how the Court will ultimately rule on the merits at trial.”

“Under the specific circumstances of this case, the Court finds that proceeding with the Enacted Maps for the 2022 election cycle is the right decision. But it is a difficult decision. And it is a decision the Court did not make lightly,” Jones wrote.

Sean Young, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia which represents some of the plaintiffs, expressed optimism after Jones ruled.

“We are encouraged that the court agreed that the maps passed by the state likely violate the Voting Rights Act, and we look forward to proving this at trial,” he said in a news release. “Georgia voters deserve fair elections, and we will never stop fighting to protect the sacred and fundamental right to vote.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger applauded the ruling, calling the plaintiffs’ demands “unreasonable, impractical, and not supported by the law.”

“Georgia’s maps are fair and adhere to traditional principles of redistricting, and I look forward to defending them through this case and in the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court,” he said in a news release.

The three lawsuits at issue are among at least five that have been filed challenging Georgia’s new maps.

A suit filed by the ACLU and the ACLU of Georgia on behalf of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and several individual voters asserts the new state Senate and House maps fail to include additional majority-minority districts that would allow Black voters to elect their preferred candidates. Instead, the suit says, Black voters are heavily concentrated in certain districts or split into predominantly white districts.

A suit filed by Democratic lawyer Marc Elias on behalf of a group of voters challenges specific state House and Senate districts and says lawmakers should have drawn three more majority-minority state Senate districts and five more majority-minority state House districts.

Another suit filed by Elias on behalf of a different group of voters challenges certain congressional districts, saying there should be an additional majority-minority district in the western Atlanta metro area.