© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Voters line up early in the morning to cast their ballots in the U.S. Senate run-off election, at a polling station in Marietta, Georgia, January 5, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar
By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -Republican state lawmakers in Georgia are pushing legislation to redraw electoral maps in three counties in a move that would effectively override local officials who have traditionally wielded that power in what has become a battleground state.
Democrats and voting rights activists say the moves are norm-busting power grabs for county commissioner seats that could significantly impact governance in areas with large minority populations. Republicans say they need to protect their constituents amid a period of intense demographic change.
The legislative maneuvers in Gwinnett, Athens-Clarke and Cobb counties all relate to the once-a-decade redistricting process in which local officials typically redraw the maps for commissioners and the state legislature approves them in a rubber-stamp vote. Commission chairs are elected county-wide, while members, or commissioners, are elected by district.
“What we are looking at is this idea that Republicans can use their power at the state legislature to circumvent local control,” said Atlanta state Representative Bee Nguyen, a Democrat who is also a candidate for secretary of state. “It is setting a new precedent that is dangerous in nature.”
The Republican lawmakers who have proposed their own maps in the bills say the maps drawn up by local officials deny their voters a voice.
The bills are the center of the latest battle over voting rights in a state President Joe Biden won narrowly in 2020, a victory that prompted Republicans to impose sweeping new ballot restrictions and make a flurry of efforts to place county election boards in Republican hands.
Redistricting has always been a partisan exercise. But for decades, lawmakers in Georgia have deferred to locally elected officials who most reflect the will of their constituents – a norm that would be changed by the bills moving their way through the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Gwinnett, Cobb and Athens-Clarke all have sizeable minority populations, prompting allegations that the maneuvers are aimed at installing whites or conservatives in county seats they otherwise could not win.
In Gwinnett, the state’s second-most populous county, a Republican state lawmaker this week submitted a map to replace one approved by its county commissioners and local legislative delegation, both of which are controlled by Democrats.
The map proposed by Bonnie Rich, a powerful House Republican who represents part of Gwinnett, would create a district that is roughly half white in a county that has undergone big population shifts and is now two-thirds Black, Hispanic and Asian.
Rich, who is white, said her map was “compact” and “fairly apportioned” and would keep communities in northern Gwinnett together. She criticized the county commission’s map, which made minimal changes to the one drawn by Republicans a decade ago, before Gwinnett flipped to Democratic control in 2016.
“They have ensured that my constituents will not have a voice at the county level,” Rich said during a House Governmental Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday.
The Georgia House passed Rich’s map on Thursday, mostly along party lines. The new map would require Marlene Fosque, the first Black person elected to Gwinnett’s board of commissioners, to move in order to run for re-election this year.
A similar process is playing out in Cobb County, where Republican legislators have filed their own maps for the education and commissioner boards.
In Athens-Clarke, four Republicans are pushing ahead with a map that renumbers districts in way that will prevent three Democratic commissioners from running for re-election, and which goes against a map approved by the county commission.
Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said the Georgia events represent “signs of extreme redistricting abuses” and could be traced to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act’s provision requiring former Confederate states to seek federal approval before re-drawing voting districts.