After Joyce Chandler and Brian Strickland, two white Republican state representatives in metro Atlanta, barely won re-election against Democrats in 2014, their colleagues in the General Assembly didn’t take it as a sign to step up minority outreach. Instead, they pulled out their maps. When the state Legislature convened the following January, as part of a “midcycle” redrawing of more than 15 House seats, lawmakers decided to swap out heavily black and Latino areas in Chandler and Strickland’s suburban districts with nearby precincts that leaned Republican. Two years later, Strickland again eked out a victory. The creative mapmaking appeared to be yet another political power play, one practiced just as deftly by Democrats during their more than 150 years of control over the General Assembly. But according to a federal lawsuit filed last October, the 2015 effort was an “assault on voting rights” that amounted to racial gerrymandering—an unconstitutional act.
By removing minority voters’ homes from the two districts to protect the Republican House majority, the lawsuit says, the Legislature diluted those residents’ voting strength, effectively “denying them the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.” Backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, former attorney general Eric Holder’s group, the plaintiffs want a judge to order a new map of state House districts, add an additional majority-minority district in metro Atlanta, and seek the court’s or federal officials’ okay prior to redistricting changes.
To the victor go the spoils, and no prize is more coveted or exploited by a state’s dominant party than the ability to redraw legislative districts and cement its hold on power. While redistricting is typically done in the wake of the decennial national census, Georgia lawmakers carve out new districts whenever the mood strikes them. By utilizing demographic data, legislators can predict down to the neighborhood where an incumbent may be vulnerable. It’s both art and science, made difficult by self-segregation of Democrats into cities and Republicans into suburbs. Software programs like Maptitude, which the General Assembly has used, come loaded with granular census data that, when combined with election results, allow mapmakers to view racial makeup and political leanings.