Georgia House GOP approves legislative map to preserve majority for years

By: - November 11, 2021 1:00 am

House Redistricting Committee Chair Rep. Bonnie Rich speaks to fellow lawmakers after they approved new House maps. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia House approved new borders for their districts on a mostly party-line vote Wednesday, 99 to 79.

If the maps pass the Senate and receive Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, the new lines will shape Georgians’ choice of their state representatives under the Gold Dome for the next decade.

“I am proud that we have not only drawn a map that is legally sound, but is also fair,” said Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican. “Now, not everybody’s going to be happy. Not all the Republicans are going to be happy and that’s the case with every piece of legislation that we pass, but we have done the best we can to balance competing priorities with the (Census) data that was delivered to us.”

Suwanee Rep. Bonnie Rich, the Republican chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said despite complaints from Democrats and some constituents represented by Republicans, the maps comply with the law and will provide fair representation for all Georgians.

“As an elected Republican woman from Gwinnett County, I’m very proud of the number of minority opportunity districts that we have drafted here,” she said. “My family, my children and I have benefited greatly from our diverse community. We have had a rich experience. And now I know that my neighbors, my friends, my children’s friends and their parents, they all have an opportunity to do what I’m doing here too. Our maps have ensured that. Our maps are representative of our state.”

The map will likely help bolster the state’s Republican majority, researchers with the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project found, with a 5% bias towards Republicans, but with all factors considered, they gave the plan a B, indicating that it is better than average, but still has room for improvement.

From left, state Reps. Park Cannon, Erica Thomas, Michael Smith and Bonnie Rich look over maps in the House chamber. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The GOP holds the majority in the Georgia House 103-77. Republicans have a 34-22 edge in the state Senate.

In addition to a lack of competitive districts, Princeton also identified a small decrease in the number of minority districts, which include majority-minority and minority-influence districts. The new map contains 109 total minority districts, two fewer than the current map.

Not including pairs in which one member is not seeking re-election, the map will force eight incumbent lawmakers to face off for re-election, Rich said.

They are Snellville Democratic Reps. Rebecca Mitchell and Shelly Hutchinson, Republican Reps. Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas and James Burchett of Waycross, Republican Reps. Danny Mathis of Cochran and Robert Pruitt of Eastman, and Republican Rep. Gerald Greene of Cuthbert and Democratic Rep. Winifred Dukes of Albany.

Greene has represented a south Georgia legislative district for nearly four decades, at first as a Democrat.

Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, said it was unfair to pair the two Democrats from Gwinnett County, which saw the most growth in the 2020 Census, instead of drawing one of the two into a nearby open district.

“This is a perfect example of politicians using their power in the redistricting process to settle some personal or political grudge rather than to benefit the public good,” he said. “That’s not right. It undermines public confidence in our democracy, and the people of Georgia deserve better.”

Rich said the committee avoided pairing incumbents whenever possible, but some matches were unavoidable because of the high population growth in metro Atlanta and the need to comply with federal laws.

Republican Reps. Danny Mathis and Alan Powell look over the new maps. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“Coming from one of the four pairings in this map, if I can set aside my personal ambitions and my personal feelings to do what’s best for the state of Georgia, I think that each and every one of us can do that,” Burchett said. “I’m appealing to you, just from a personal perspective, just to say, ‘Hey, this is not about you. This is about the state of Georgia. This is about your constituents. This is about the future of Georgia.’”

Two Republicans broke ranks and voted against the plan, Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg and Rep. Charlice Byrd of Woodstock.

Singleton’s district was the topic of much discussion at House Committee hearings, with dozens of sign-bearing protesters lamenting its proposed transformation from a district that voted 72% for Donald Trump to one that voted 68% for Joe Biden.

Singleton made one last dramatic plea from the House floor for his colleagues to vote the measure down.

“If you allow your voice to be silenced, or you willingly submit your voice to a select few, you are complicit in the destruction of our republic, you are creating a functional oligarchy,” he said. “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. I want everyone in this room to have an equal voice.”

Democrats were equal in their opposition to their plan, but they took a different tack in their criticism.

Decatur Democrat Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said the map violates the Voting Rights Act by dividing minority communities.

“The Stonecrest community is split into three separate districts,” she said. “My city of Decatur, where I’ve practiced law for a good while, if I had the corner office, which I don’t have the corner office, I could look at three different districts. The city of Decatur is four square miles. It has four representatives. The district line separating House District 91 and House District 116 divides the community of Stockbridge, the Groveway community in Roswell. A community of African American churches that vote and pray together has been divided by a split precinct.”

Garden City Democratic Rep. Carl Gilliard criticized the Republican-led committee for calling a vote Wednesday on a version of a map that was publicly unveiled just two days earlier.

“Of all the public comments recorded, a vast majority came before the release of the map that we are voting on today,” he said. “Communities across Georgia learned for the first time last week exactly how their representation would change. And in response, they were given two options, come to the state Capitol in the middle of the workday, or go on the portal and put your information in.”

Rich said public feedback found its way into the map by way of summer listening sessions, online comments and Capitol hearings earlier this week, and she criticized Democrats for not getting involved earlier in the process.

“In addition to the 88-plus hours that I made available, in the four separate emails that went out to every member of this body, I also offered to meet with each and every one of you at any other time, if none of those times that I suggested were convenient for you,” she said. “Some people did take me up on that. Most Democrats didn’t, and that’s unfortunate for their districts, and for their constituents.”

The Senate passed its map Tuesday, also along party lines, and the House Redistricting Committee gave its approval to the plan Wednesday, setting it up for a vote from the full body. Once both chambers approve the other’s plan, they will await Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, and the Legislature will turn to its final task of the special session, redrawing the state’s 14 congressional district boundaries.

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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. 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.