A group of Georgia Legislatures at the state capitol speaking at the steps.
Georgia Democratic state Rep Sam Park, of Lawrenceville, speaks Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 at a news conference at the state Capitol. Park and other Democrats opposed a Republican effort to override Democrats to draw new county commission districts in suburban Atlanta's Gwinnett County. (Jeff Amy/AP)

Republican state lawmakers in Georgia are reaching down to redraw election districts for county officials in Democratic controlled counties, a power grab possible in part because there’s no federal oversight of redistricting in Georgia for the first time in decades.

The Republican-majority legislature is seeking to impose its own maps in as many as four large counties, which collectively have more than 2 million residents. Republicans say their maps better comply with federal law and keep communities together. But Democrats say they’re driven by partisan and racial motives, threatening lawsuits to overturn the maps.

“It’s a petite coup of our local government,” said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link, who could be drawn out of her district and blocked from running for reelection this year.

It’s another example of Republicans trying to maintain control in a pivotal battleground state that Democratic President Joe Biden won narrowly in 2020 and that elected two Democratic U.S. senators in 2021, giving Democrats control of that chamber. The local disputes follow a restrictive new voting law that lawmakers passed year, as well as a statewide redistricting effort aimed at giving Republicans another of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats.

Georgia is unusual in that the state’s General Assembly has final say over county commission and county school board districts in the state’s 159 counties. In most states, local governments are responsible for redrawing their own district lines once every 10 years, to adjust for population changes after U.S. Census results are released. But in Georgia, while local governments may propose maps, lawmakers have to sign off. And Republicans have other ideas in mind for Cobb and Gwinnett counties in suburban Atlanta, as well as for consolidated city-counties that govern Athens and Augusta.

“I think this is redistricting at its very worst,” said Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Republicans deny partisan or racial motives.

“The goal of the maps that I’ve signed on to is to provide fair, balanced, reasonable maps that represent communities of interest,” state Rep. Ed Setzler, a Marietta Republican, said Thursday in a discussion on Cobb County redistricting.

Democrats have denounced the moves in incendiary tones that strain the veneer of legislative civility. State Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat who chairs the majority-Democratic Gwinnett County House delegation, accused Republicans redrawing the lines of trying to maintain white supremacy.

“They’re doubling down on their effort to segregate voters in Gwinnett and their pursuit of protecting and preserving white power in the most diverse county in the state of Georgia,” Park said Jan. 25. “Clearly, clearly, white power is alive and well in the Georgia Republican Party.”

Rep. Bonnie Rich, a Suwanee Republican pushing the Gwinnett County changes, called Park’s racial claims “ugly and baseless name-calling.” She said her proposal, passed 96-70 Thursday by the state House and sent to the Senate, is more compact. She also said it recognizes that her constituents in northern Gwinnett County need their own representative, saying they have different needs. It would create a whiter, more Republican district on what is now a commission made up of five Democrats.

“I didn’t ask for a Republican leaning district,” Rich said Tuesday. “I didn’t ask for a competitive district. I asked for fair maps that will allow my constituents a voice, that will not disenfranchise them.”

In the previous five decades, any voting district changes in Georgia would have required U.S. Justice Department preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. However, the U.S. Supreme Court halted preclearance in 2013. Rudensky said such review was most crucial at the local level, where public scrutiny may be less than on congressional and state legislative maps

“This was where Section 5 did the most work,” Rudensky said.

Lawsuits could follow, but they could take years. “With litigation, there are no certainties,” Rudensky said.

The bills are also traveling a different path than hundreds of other Georgia local redistricting bills. A majority of local lawmakers must agree before local bills can progress. But in Cobb, Gwinnett and Augusta-Richmond, bills are proceeding under statewide rules against the wishes of majority-Democratic local delegations.

“Everything now is local until it’s not,” said state Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat.

The moves could have consequences for local government policies. In Athens-Clarke, where government has taken a sharp left turn in recent years, the three most left-leaning members would be knocked out of office. That could affect local initiatives on homelessness, policing and COVID-19 mask mandates.

“It’s just a blatant play to erase 30% of our local elected body,” Link said.

Link and two others would be forced out for at least two years because the 10-member commission is elected every two years in two groups of five. Link now lives in District 3. All odd-numbered districts are supposed to elect commissioners this year. But she would be redrawn into an even-numbered district with another incumbent. Even if Link wanted to challenge the incumbent, there will be no election until 2024. And she can’t move and run elsewhere, because Athens-Clarke commissioners must live in their district for a year before taking office.

“It’s so obvious I was personally targeted,” Link said. “To completely wipe my district off the map, to completely disenfranchise my constituents, I don’t think there’s more than a few hundred of my constituents who will be able to vote this year.”

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