ATLANTA (AP) — It's essentially already too late to make any changes sought by lawsuits challenging Georgia's new congressional and legislative maps ahead of this year's midterm elections, a lawyer for state officials said Wednesday.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed the new maps for congressional and state legislative districts into law on Dec. 30. Three lawsuits challenging the maps were immediately filed that day, and two more have been filed since then by individual voters, voting rights groups and other organizations.
Lawyers for those critics of the new maps rejected the idea that January is too late to make changes when the general election isn't until November.
The lawsuits argue that the new maps improperly reduce the voting strength of Black voters and other voters of color. Two of the lawsuits argue that the maps violate the U.S. Constitution, while the others focus on alleged violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Timing, jurisdiction and whether to consolidate the cases were among the issues discussed during a hearing Wednesday that involved three judges and a dozen attorneys.
The 2022 election cycle effectively begins Thursday when candidates and their supporters can begin circulating nomination petitions, said lawyer Bryan Tyson, who represents the various state officials named in the lawsuits. Furthermore, he said, the secretary of state's office has told county officials they need to have all redistricting changes entered into the voter registration system by Feb. 18 to avoid causing problems for candidate qualifying, which begins March 7, and other preparation for the May 24 primary.
With those processes already underway based on the maps signed by the governor, Tyson argued, it's basically too late to make changes for the 2022 cycle. Instead, he said, this year's elections should be held using the new maps and any changes that end up being required as a result of the lawsuits can be implemented for the 2024 election cycle.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones pointed out that the Georgia General Assembly is currently in session and could change dates if needed. Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer who filed two of the lawsuits on behalf of individual voters, noted that the court could also order changes to the dates.
It's “a little surprising” to hear the state argue that it's too late to fix maps that include violations of the Voting Rights Act, Hamilton said. That's a bit “inconsistent" given that the governor waited about 40 days to sign off on the maps after they were passed by state lawmakers during a special legislative session in November, he argued.
By law, the constitutional claims raised in two of the lawsuits have to be heard by a three-judge panel. Among the questions that the judges have to sort out is whether the panel also has jurisdiction over the other suits that only raise claims under the Voting Rights Act or whether those suits should be heard by one of the judges alone. The judges also have to decide on scheduling and whether some or all of the suits can be consolidated to streamline the process.