Georgia lawmakers exchange sharp words as GOP-drawn political maps clear key vote Friday

Gainesville Republican Sen. Shelly Echols, who chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, presents the Senate map. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Proposed new legislative maps cleared a key vote Friday as Republican lawmakers race to push through remedial plans that they say comply with a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s political maps.

But Democrats argue the plans run afoul of the court-ordered fix and leave everyone at risk of having a special master redraw the maps for them.

The GOP-controlled Senate and House punched the maps through their chamber on the third day of a special redistricting session that became necessary after Judge Steve Jones ruled in October that maps created in 2021 diluted the voting strength of Black Georgians.

The maps still need to be approved by the other chamber, and lawmakers jumpstarted the committee review process Friday afternoon as a closely watched congressional map was also released. All three maps must be on the judge’s desk by Dec. 8.

Senate Democrats blasted the proposed remedial maps, which they called a “shell game” that moved Black voters around without meaningfully improving their ability to elect their preferred candidates.

Elberton Republican Rep. Rob Leverett chairs the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

And in the House, Democrats argued the GOP-drawn map created the required majority Black districts while chipping away at other districts where diverse communities help elect minority-preferred candidates.

Republicans have pushed back on the criticism, at times dismissing it as sour grapes because the new court-ordered maps have not yielded the likely Democratic gains that some expected since Black Georgians tend to vote for Democrats at high rates.

And GOP leaders argue their maps satisfy the judge’s 516-page order.

“So, as we as a state hope to better Alabama in a certain sporting contest this weekend, we will not follow the example of their Legislature in the lack of seriousness and respect we afford a thorough and detailed decision of a federal judge, whom I think all of us respect and admire very much,” said Elberton Republican Rep. Rob Leverett, who chairs the House Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee

“We will comply,” he said.

The Senate map

Under the proposed Senate map, Democratic Sens. Elena Parent and Jason Esteves would also see their current districts in metro Atlanta go from primarily white to districts with a significant Black population.

Minority Leader Gloria Butler said the Senate plan relies on “smoke and mirrors.”

“In many ways, the Republican proposal is a hoax,” the Stone Mountain Democrat said. “In the specific area where the court found Voting Rights Act violations, the majority’s proposal moves nearly as many Black residents out of existing majority Black districts as it moves into majority Black districts. This means that a net of only approximately 3,000 Black voters in the vote dilution area identified by the court were moved into majority Black districts.”

The map cleared the chamber mostly along party lines. Carrollton Republican Sen. Mike Dugan crossed over to vote against the plans because he said in a statement that the changes “adjusted the composition of my district far more than I believe it should have been.” And he called the process for requesting changes to the map “politics at its ugliest.”

Macon Democratic Sen. David Lucas, who was first elected to the House in 1975 and the Senate in 2012, said neither side will be happy if the court rejects the maps and a special master is appointed to draw the boundary lines.

State senators listen to debate on a proposed new Senate map. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

“I’ve seen it go around. I’ve seen folks cry when they leave here because they were drawn out of a district. I’ve seen some rejoice because they kept that district,” he said. “But let me say to you, there is no joy when a special master does it. It’s done by figures. Not who you are, not where you live, and it doesn’t make any sense whether you’re paired with anybody. They don’t care, they just look at numbers.”

Republicans pushed back strongly at suggestions they aimed to dull the power of Georgia’s Black vote.

Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal pointed to the numbers: the 2021 Senate map features 14 Black majority districts. The proposed new map includes 16. The judge had ordered lawmakers to create two additional Black majority districts in south metro Atlanta.

“It complies with the Voting Rights Act in every way, unless you believe that the Voting Rights Act is created to create Democrat districts,” Dolezal said. “And if we’re being perfectly honest, the reason that the objections are being raised is because this map does not create new Democrat districts. I read the order, I read the remedy in the order, went through it, I don’t see anything about creating new Democrat districts.”

Sen. John Kennedy, a Macon Republican who chaired the Senate redistricting committee in 2021, said the Democrats ought to be happy with what they get.

“The Senate maps could reflect an entirely new Senate composition, totally disregarding the work that we did in 2021, meaning what? Meaning we could have played games,” Kennedy said. “We could have paired Democrats up in the same district, we could have redrawn the entire map to comply with the judge’s order, but done things that, quite frankly, we didn’t do in ‘21, and under the chairmanship of (Echols) we didn’t do this time either, because that’s not the character of how this majority party has operated for the last 20 years that we’ve been working on maps.”

The House map

The new district lines for the House cleared the lower chamber with a 101-to-77 vote that fell along party lines.

The plan creates the court-ordered five new majority Black districts in metro Atlanta and the Macon-Bibb County areas, but it also drew four pairs of incumbents into the same district, with three of those sets featuring Democrats. In each matchup, one person will not be returning to the Gold Dome after next year’s election. 

House Speaker Jon Burns pointed to the one Republican pairing as evidence that neither party is coming out of this process unscathed.

“It’s not my choice to be here, but we’re going to be here and we’re doing the work that’s been assigned to us. We’re going to comply with Judge Jones’ order. We’re going to create new Black majority districts in this state. That’s what we were told to do. That’s what this map does,” Burns said.

Long-time Griffin Rep. David Knight, who chairs the higher education budget committee, would be paired with two-term Concord Rep. Beth Camp. Both voted for the map Friday, with Camp saying the changes were unfortunate but her support necessary.

“Emotions cannot rule in this important task with a looming deadline,” she said to her colleagues.

Rep. Sam Park said the judge should reject the House map. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

But Democrats have argued that the Republican-drawn map’s new majority Black districts are being created at the expense of minority representation in Gwinnett and Dekalb counties.

Lawrenceville Republican Rep. Sam Park said the judge should reject the plans, which he called an “undemocratic, un-American blatant exercise of partisan gerrymandering.”

Park holds a leadership role in the Democratic caucus, but he is also a potential victim of the Democratic pairings. Under the House plan, he was drawn into the same district as Rep. Gregg Kennard.

Park said the changes amount to “five steps forward and two steps back.”

“The blatant disregard for existing law that protects majority minority districts in Georgia demonstrates an intent to once again attack the Voting Rights Act by narrowing its protections,” Park said.

House Minority Leader James Beverly accused Republicans of dismantling those two diverse districts in metro Atlanta just to save one incumbent.

“You can’t say ‘we complied’ and break the law. That’s not how America works. It’s certainly not how Georgia Works, and it’s certainly not what Judge Jones ordered,” he said.

Democrats in both chambers offered up alternatives that did not advance. In the House, Republicans criticized the map presented by Democrats because they said it does not create five districts where more than 50% of the population is home to Black voters. One of the five districts in the Democrats’ map is just short of that threshold, but Beverly defended it as offering a Black plurality that would satisfy the judge’s order. 

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