Georgia GOP lawmakers draw fire over planned redistricting maps

Senate panel approves Republican-drawn map Friday

By: and - November 5, 2021 10:04 pm

Republicans advanced a proposed new map out of committee Friday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Tensions are rising at the state Capitol as Republican lawmakers push forward new district maps they hope will protect their majority into the future and survive a likely court challenge. 

Senate Republicans voted their map out of a committee Friday afternoon, teeing it up for a vote in the full Senate in the second week of the special redistricting session.

The GOP-drawn Senate map, which surrenders one seat now favorable to Republicans, is criticized by Democrats and advocacy groups who say the new districts do not adequately reflect the growth of Georgia’s minority communities statewide and who are decrying the speed of the process after details were unveiled on the eve of the session’s start.

And in the House, a GOP lawmaker threatened to have some Coweta County conservatives forcibly removed from a Friday afternoon hearing after their protests over their new proposed district lines caused disruptions. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a committee hearing, this is not a pep rally,” Rep. Bonnie Rich, a Suwanee Republican and chair of the House redistricting committee, told members of the audience after several interruptions. “We have rules. So I’m going to ask that you maintain order please.”

Republican leaders released their maps publicly Tuesday ahead of a special legislative session to redraw district lines and as many people turned their attention to the Atlanta Braves World Series clincher or election results coming in across the state for local contests. 

The Friday meeting, which included an opportunity for public input, started an hour before a parade held for the Braves rolled through town – passing the state Capitol as Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, presented an alternative map.

Butler walked through changes Democrats would like to see, such as shoring up minority population representation in Henry, Fulton and Gwinnett counties and other Georgia communities and maintaining the competitiveness of some districts in areas like Cobb County.

But mainly Butler tried without success Friday to delay the vote. Friday’s vote fell along party lines, nine to four.

“The majority seems intent on allowing Georgians less than 72 hours to review and provide feedback on the map that will affect their lives for the next decade,” Butler said.

Senate Republicans defend their map and process, pointing to a series of public hearings held over the summer before the 2020 Census data arrived in the fall. And they say they have been assured by legislative counsel that the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act. 

The maps are expected to end up in court over claims of intentional racial discrimination, which is the only avenue available for a legal challenge after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ended the need for Justice Department oversight. 

“It is clearly not drawn for partisan purposes because it reduces the Republican majority,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican who is vice chair of the committee. Under the plan, a GOP-held district in south Georgia would move hundreds of miles north to fast-growing and racially diverse Gwinnett County. Republicans currently hold a 34-22 majority in the Senate. 

“I don’t see the purpose of delay. It’s not like this is a surprise that we’re meeting in session here in November to consider maps,” Cowsert said.

Sen. John Kennedy, a Macon Republican who chairs the redistricting committee, has said the pandemic-delayed population data contributed to a shortened time frame. The special session started Nov. 3.

“I have to go back and remind folks that most chairs and committees that do this work once a decade have somewhere between six to eight months to do this work, and we virtually had six to eight weeks to do it,” he said Friday.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican, holds up a copy of the Democratic-drawn 2002 map, which was thrown out in court, during a Senate committee held Friday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Republicans accused the minority party of trying to draw a map to its political advantage under the guise of bolstering minority communities across the state.

And a copy of the old Democratic-drawn map was passed around as a reminder of the creative – and ultimately deemed unconstitutional – map-making attempted two decades ago by Democrats.

“What we’re really doing here is looking at it from a winning and losing standpoint,” said Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat who was elected in 2014. “I was not here in 2001. I’m really tired of hearing about 2001. That’s not the Democratic Party that I represent … Don’t put 2001 on me.”

Jones criticized Republicans for not slowing down and making sure decision makers understand what the Voting Rights Act requires. The emphasis, he argued, should be on protecting the rights of minority voting, not ballot-box implications.

“My concern is that some of these maps are going to be challenged and the whole thing is going to be thrown out, because we’re just doing it in the dark,” he said. 

House GOP map gets first public airing 

Rich, who chairs the House redistricting committee, gave the first in-depth look at her party’s proposed redistricting map Friday, denying charges from Democratic lawmakers of a rushed process and quieting a sometimes raucous crowd.

Members of the public, some bearing signs reading “Keep Coweta Red” and “Save the 71st” shouted at lawmakers even after Rich warned them to stop. At one point, two uniformed officers entered the committee room but did not escort anyone from the room.

“You work for us!” shouted one woman.

“There will be a time, ma’am,” Rich said. “I understand that, you need to maintain order and follow the rules.”

The protesters came to complain about the shifting political turf between Coweta County and south Fulton, which would move conservative firebrand Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg from a district that voted 72% for Donald Trump to one that voted 68% for Joe Biden. 

Singleton actively campaigned on his opposition to House Speaker David Ralston in 2019 and is best known for a controversial bill that would have banned transgender girls from playing girls’ sports in public schools.

There was no public comment scheduled for Friday’s hearing, which upset some of the people at the hearing.

Rich argued legislators held public hearings across the state during the summer and continue to accept written testimony. Critics say the public hearings were not very useful months before the public could see the proposed maps.

Jennifer Webster, a Coweta resident who works as a project manager for a bank, said after the meeting that she came because the proposed map splits up her more rural and conservative community and adds it to the more urban and liberal Fulton County, where residents have priorities different from hers.

She said she was shocked when she saw the Republican map Tuesday, the night before the special session began.

“We just found out about the map,” she said. “They talk about how they traveled the state of Georgia, did all of these things, well, they never did anything in our region,” she said. “When the Democratic map came out, which it came out two weeks ago, I actually didn’t really oppose it. I listened to (Minority Leader James Beverly) today make really good comments. Very good, fair. I’m like, represent the community, don’t divide the community.”

Beverly presented the Democrats’ alternative plan at the meeting. Their latest map gets an overall B from the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project, but it received an F in the subcategory of competitiveness, with researchers noting it had only eight competitive districts out of 180. The Republican map also received a B overall but an F in competitiveness, with nine competitive districts. Republicans at the meeting complained the Democratic map paired more Republican incumbents and split more counties than the GOP plan.

Rather than pointing out specific flaws with the Republican maps, critics on the third day of Georgia’s special session said they have not had enough time to study the maps that will determine the state’s electoral prospects for the next ten years. 

“The process is just way too rushed,” said Fair Districts Georgia Chair Ken Lawler after the House meeting. “They’re really not listening to objective input, which is what we’re trying to provide for the agency. They listened to it. I don’t think they’re going to adjust anything as a result of what we had to say.”

Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Democrat from Garden City, questioned how his constituents were supposed to offer input on the map.

“My focus is that we have just had this map put into existence within the last couple of days,” he said. “I’m going back to Chatham County in a few minutes, and I have to explain to our constituents in Chatham County, ‘Here you go, here’s the map, just deal with it.’”

Gilliard asked that a vote be delayed to give time for public feedback on the proposed political boundaries, but Rich indicated she hopes to finish the process by Thanksgiving. The timeline is short this year because the U.S. Census Bureau faced COVID-related delays in getting its data out to the states. Maps will need to be ready by March, when candidates for the 2022 election will qualify to run.

“In a perfect world, I would love for us to be able to go over this and over this and change it for weeks and weeks,” Rich said. “You have no idea how many hours are put into this and how many people are working on this. It is physically impossible to do what you’re asking. But we are offering these hearings, we put the maps out on Tuesday, it’s really difficult to get to that point, we are offering today’s hearing so that you can hear from us, you can hear me explain the map.”

“We’re having another hearing on Monday that is scheduled from (1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the same room where you can come back and you can offer public testimony,” Rich added. “We are going to meet again the next day. So please, please just follow the website. We have a process that we follow. We have a committee process, and we’re doing it.”

That’s not much comfort for Georgians like Webster, who say they feel blindsided by the speed of the process.

“If it’s a predominantly Republican committee, then why did none of them come down and even visit the area before making this change? They didn’t,” she said. “And then they put this map out and act like they’ve been doing all this good work all summer long, and seem completely like, ‘Wow, why are people upset with our maps?’”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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