'Out of order': Georgia local redistricting fights intensify

A voter casts his ballot during early voting Tuesday, Oct., 26, 2010, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Georgia Republicans’ override of Democratic local redistricting plans is likely to keep inflaming tensions in the General Assembly this week, as the majority GOP shows no signs of backing down.

Tempers flared Wednesday when a white Republican committee chairman cut off the microphone and called Capitol police on a Black Democrat protesting Republican efforts to redraw the Cobb County school board.

In Cobb and two other counties, Republicans are discarding the normal process whereby lawmakers rubber-stamp county commission and county school board districts proposed locally, as long as districts get approval from a majority of local lawmakers. Instead, bills are being treated as statewide matters with Republicans overriding the wishes of majority-Democratic local delegations.

The state Senate on Thursday sent a map redrawing Gwinnett County’s commission map to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto, carving out a GOP-leaning district in northern Gwinnett instead of keeping four districts that all elected Democrats in 2020.

In Cobb, Republicans are redrawing districts for both the county school board and county commission. On the horizon is the same treatment for the commission and school board in the consolidated city-county of Augusta-Richmond.

Republicans also redrew the Athens-Clarke Commission against the wishes of most commissioners in a move that will push three incumbents out of office. That map was treated as local legislation because the local delegation is majority-Republican.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, defended his party’s decision to grab power from local Democrats when asked about disputes in Gwinnett and Cobb.

“There are consequences to elections,” Ralston said Friday, referring to the GOP majorities in the House and Senate. “And there are a lot of people in both of those counties who feel disenfranchised by maps that were prepared locally.”

Georgia is unusual in that lawmakers approve county commission and county school board districts. In most states, local governments redraw their own district lines to adjust for population changes after U.S. Census results are released every 10 years. Also, for the first time since the 1960s, there’s no U.S. Justice Department oversight of Georgia voting changes to prevent racial discrimination, after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 halted the advance approval requirement.

Disputes grew even more intense after House Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican, called Capitol Police during a confrontation with House Minority Whip David Wilkerson. It began Wednesday when Wilkerson, a Powder Springs Democrat, said he was “disgusted at this chamber” after Republicans refused to meet with Democrats about a proposed Cobb school board map.

“I would be very, very careful,” Taylor said. “You’re going to listen to me.”

“No, I’m not going to listen to you, because I’m tired of you talking down to me,” Wilkerson replied as Taylor ordered Wilkerson’s microphone to be turned off and declared him out of order, shortly afterward asking for security to be called.

“This hearing’s out of order. … We have four white members who are fighting three African American members,” Wilkerson said of the conflict-riven Cobb school board after his microphone was silenced. Then, as a GOP lawmaker rose from his seat, Wilkerson added, “I dare you to come down here. All we’re asking is that we get the same respect you white members get.”

Wilkerson was not arrested or escorted from the room. The full House has yet to vote on the Cobb maps. Democrats spotlighted his treatment in a Friday news conference, arguing Republicans are violating federal law by reducing the power of nonwhite voters.

During a testy exchange Thursday, state Sens. Max Burns and Harold Jones disputed the impact of the commission map for Augusta-Richmond County later approved by the Senate. Those measures are now pending in the House.

Burns, a Sylvania Republican, said local officials refused to discuss concerns about their original map. He also said the new map didn’t violate federal law protecting African American voters.

“You have a map that instead of splitting 13 precincts, splits two. You have a map that keeps neighborhoods and historic neighborhoods together,” Burns said. “You have a map that represents Richmond and Augusta.”

Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said the new map affects 17 African American precincts, violates the Voting Rights Act and disrespects mostly Black local officials who approved a different plan.

“At some point in time, we have to start respecting African American elected officials,” Jones said. “This was a total disrespect of it.”