Rep. Bonnie Rich’s proposed map for the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners passed the House Thursday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
The state House passed a GOP-drawn Gwinnett County commission map Thursday which would give their party more say on the board, but Democrats say the move flies in the face of long-established legislative norms.
Typically, local bills such as election maps are approved by the legislators who represent those areas and rubber stamped by the full body. The Gwinnett map, drawn by Suwanee Republican Rep. Bonnie Rich, chair of the House majority caucus and of the House redistricting committee, received a full vote in the Republican-dominated House despite a lack of support from the majority-Democratic Gwinnett delegation.
The vote could create a dark precedent, said Atlanta Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Clark.
“Colleagues, today, you’re being asked to make history and do something that this body does not do,” she said. “Today, you’re being asked to treat a local redistricting bill as a general bill, which is arguably unlawful, to ignore the will of the majority of the delegation and to abandon the customs and courtesies of this body for local matters, and vote on it. That’s the map that is only signed by one out of 13 members of our delegation, or 8%, is not supported by our local Board of Commissioners, 92% of our delegation, nor has been properly vetted by the public.”
The map is now set to head to the Senate. If it passes both chambers and receives Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, Democrats could decide to take the matter to court. Several members said the map dilutes the rights of racial minorities to elect a candidate of their choice, which could amount to a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“I truly question the constitutionality of this proposed map and its compliance with Section Two of the Voting Rights Act,” Clark said. “Additionally, this proposed map cracks the Asian population, one of our fastest growing populations in the county, so much that they go from being the second-largest voting bloc in district one in the original map to being the smallest voting bloc in every single district in the substitute.”
Republicans dismissed the arguments as political theater and said their map better fits the needs of Gwinnett residents.
“Procedurally, this is in accordance with what is best going forward,” said Dacula Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration. “It’s what is best for the communities in Gwinnett County, it has afforded an opportunity for discussion and debate as we’re having here today in the House chamber, but also, it prioritizes issues of compactness, communities of interest, important responsibilities that county commissioners will ultimately need to consider. That is best situated with the map that is before you now.”
Democrats fear Gwinnett will only be the start. They say similar redrawn maps are under consideration for counties including Clarke, Richmond and Cobb. Cobb lawmakers held a press conference Thursday morning to condemn the process.
Powder Springs Democratic state Rep. David Wilkerson called the maps an attempt to usurp the will of Cobb voters, whose population has grown increasingly diverse in recent years.
“You very rarely hear me mention race, but today, let me be very clear: this is about making sure people of color stay in their place and do not have a seat at the table,” Wilkerson said.
Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler made an unusual appearance at the Democratic press conference to defend the maps.
“I think they represent the common sense communities of interest in Cobb County,” he said. “When you look at a west Cobb commissioner, an east Cobb commissioner, a south Cobb Commissioner and a commissioner that represents the growing and increasingly important sort of central Cobb transportation corridor from the stadium up to Town Center, I think those are communities of interest folks understand.”
Cobb County is one of the most populated in Georgia, with more than 760,000 people according to the U.S. Census, up from 688,000 in 2010.
Cobb delegation chair state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna said he wishes Republican members of the delegation would have provided the kind of feedback Setzler offered much earlier in the process.
“This is the most I’ve heard from Rep. Setzler since we started this process back in October,” Allen said. “He did not show up to one meeting. He did not respond to one email, and he wants to hijack a press conference and start spewing off talking points about a transit corridor.”
Allen said he will introduce the map approved by the delegation on the next legislative day, which is Monday.
“We will continue to fight in every avenue that we have available to us,” he said.
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