Thousands of metro Atlanta voters would find themselves in different state House districts under a Republican plan that Democrats allege reduces the influence of minority voters.
Similar moves in other states have been challenged in federal courts, according to experts in voting law. If the Georgia plan is approved by the Republican dominated legislature, and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, it could also be open to legal challenges.
The most controversial boundary changes affect state House District 40 in Cobb and Fulton County. Republican Rep. Rich Golick has held the seat since 1999. Democrat Erick Allen lost to Golick by 20 points in 2014, but in 2016 the margin narrowed to just 6 points, or about 2,000 votes. Democrats typically fare better in presidential election years.
Most redistricting occurs at the beginning of new decades after the U.S. Census, when it’s required by law.
Allen called the proposed changes a “blatant effort” by Republicans to retain control of District 40.
Roughly 2,000 black voters would no longer be in the district under the Republican plan, at the same time the district would gain about 5,000 white voters. That’s according to analysis distributed by the left-leaning organization ProGeorgia. The group used Census data tied to District 40 precincts to calculate the potential effect of changing the district’s boundaries.
“I think the shame of this bill is that it’s allowing someone who doesn’t want to work, and talk to their voters, to just be drawn into a more favorable district,” Allen said, calling Golick “lazy.”
Allen, who is black, said he connects with the minority voters who would be moved in a way Golick, who is white, doesn’t.
"What's worse than anything with this current bill is you take people who are gaining momentum, gaining excitement of having a representative voice, and now removing them from that process,” Allen said.
Golick did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He voted in favor of the bill.
Other leading Republican have defended the proposed changes.
"I can assure you there has been no sinister act. Nothing underhanded has come about,” said Republican Rep. Johnny Caldwell, the sponsor of the bill that outlines the boundary changes.
The bill would also change the boundaries of state House District 111 in McDonough, held by Republican Rep. Brian Strickland. In 2014, Strickland won reelection by about 6 points, in 2016 that margin dropped to 3 points. According to analysis by ProGeorgia, under the Republican plan, about 1,200 new white voters would cast their ballots in District 111, and about 1,500 black voters currently in that district would cast their ballots elsewhere.
When Republican Speaker of the House David Ralston defended the boundary changes, he alluded to the fact the party who controls the state legislature also controls how districts are drawn. When Democrats ruled the state house, they tried to set up the districts in a way that would enable them to retain political power.
“I would remind [Democrats] that the last time they drew a map that it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court,” Ralston said.
The Republican redistricting plan could be open to challenges in federal courts, according to legal experts.
There are two claims to be made, according to Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine. One is that the influence of black voters is being diluted by moving them; the other is that the district lines were drawn based on race.
"African-American voters overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. White voters by a large majority support the Republican Party,” Hasen said. “So you have both racial and political differences that are driving these redistricting decisions."
The link between race and party in the South can create a situation where lawmakers defend the way they draw district boundaries as completely partisan. It allows them to step away from accusations their decisions were based on race, according to Hasen.
"It's a very ironic kind of situation where it's a defense to be making decisions in the legislature based on what's going to help your political party, as opposed to what might be sound public policy,” Hasen said.
There are redistricting fights in other states, and rulings from federal courts on those could affect a potential case in Georgia.
Michael Kang, a law professor at Emory University, looks to a pending Supreme Court case about how districts were drawn in North Carolina.
“The issue in Georgia, and in the North Carolina cases is whether the predominant intent of the legislature is racial or partisan,” Kang said
Elly Yu contributed to this story.