ATLANTA — The Georgia House and Senate approved new political boundaries for their 236 members, beating back fiery opposition from Democrats who have vowed to challenge the new maps in court.
Each chamber approved its own map on Thursday along mainly partisan lines.
The House voted 108-64 in favor of its map, and the Senate approved its map by a vote of 35-18. It is the first time in Georgia that Republicans have controlled the redistricting process from start to finish.
The plans pit 20 House members against fellow incumbents from the same party and place two Democratic senators in one district. Four of the House pairings are in Republican districts in south Georgia. Six pairings set up House Democratic matchups in metro Atlanta.
Democrats have objected to the redrawn lines, saying the GOP is trying to purge the state of white Democrats by forcing them into primary matchups, in many cases against black lawmakers.
Republicans say they are complying with the Voting Rights Act, noting that they’ve added a black-majority district in the Senate and have not significantly reduced the percentage of black voters in such “majority” districts. But Democrats say the Republicans have harmed black voters by reducing their numbers in so-called “influence” districts in which blacks are shy of a majority.
Democrats who ran the process with an iron fist 10 years ago were on the defensive this week, alleging political payback by Republicans who now control both legislative chambers. Democrats accuse the GOP of racial and partisan gerrymandering, alleging that Republican lawmakers are drawing district lines to gain supermajorities that would allow them to pass constitutional amendments without Democratic votes.
“Like a child that has been bullied, the GOP has grown up holding a grudge,” House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said Thursday as a three-hour debate wound down in the House. “It bullies those who have less power just because it was done to them.”
But Republicans argue that the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act. The maps require approval by the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts because of the state’s past history of voting discrimination.
“This is a fair, constitutional, legal map,” House Reapportionment Committee Chairman Roger Lane said. The Darien Republican said he was frustrated that Democrats complain about the maps after rebuffing his offers to come in and offer their thoughts earlier.
The Senate debated for more than five hours. Many speakers seemed to be laying the groundwork for a court fight over the GOP proposals.
Republicans maintained the maps preserve communities of interest and keep together counties and precincts, as required.
“The lieutenant governor did not draw this map,” said Senate redistricting chairman Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg. “The Republican leadership did not draw this map. I did not draw this map. Those who participated in this process are the ones responsible for this map.”
Sen. Donzella James told her colleagues that the process was unfair and that she and fellow Democratic senators were shut out.
“To me, this process was a sham,” she said. “They asked us what we wanted, but we were not really allowed input.”
Democrats offered an alternative that they said would protect minority voting strength.
Sen. Horacena Tate said the GOP map reinterprets the Voting Rights Act and does not consider potential multi-racial coalitions or areas where black voting influence could allow them to elect a candidate of their choice.
“We are choosing to take a step back,” Tate said, arguing that the Democrats’ alternative fixed concerns over diluted minority voting power. “These are the kinds of changes that will help us get a map pre-cleared.”
Sen. Jason Carter, who is also an attorney with experience litigating voting rights issues, said the GOP’s reading of the Voting Rights Act is a limited one.
“They have designed maps that require a court decision,” Carter said. “We have offered alternatives that would not have to be litigated.”
The Democrats’ plan was not considered before the Senate vote. The approved Senate map forces state Sen. George Hooks, the longest-serving member of the chamber, into a district with state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims in South Georgia. Hooks is white, Sims is black. Both are Democrats.
Hooks, who has served in the Senate for more than two decades in a district once represented by former President Jimmy Carter, gave an impassioned speech.
“These are not maps,” Hooks told his fellow senators. “They’re people ... little people that need our help. Many of these counties have no chambers of commerce, no Rotary club, no Junior League. But they’ve got legislators.”
State Rep. Elena Parent, who is paired against fellow Democrat Scott Holcomb in the redrawn maps, said the boundaries of her new district resemble a “road-kill snake” or a “smashed bug.”
She described proposed districts in north Georgia that are square and compact. Yet when they reached into Democratic strongholds of metro Atlanta “they curve, they bend, they go on for miles.”
But House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey rejected the Democratic claims, arguing that in urban areas elongated districts are often needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act. And he blasted Abrams for threatening retaliation against Democrats who voted for the maps.
Lindsey railed that Democrats would vote no, “not because these are unfair maps, it’s because they have been threatened with their political futures if they vote for it.”
State Rep. Al Williams allowed that redistricting is “not a lovefest” and acknowledged that Republicans had won the right to control the process.
“I have no problem being in the minority and taking a spanking,” the Midway Democrat said. “But I just didn’t want it to be a beatdown.”
Both chambers now must approve each other’s maps, before the plans head to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature. The chambers’ typically defer to each other to draw their own maps and pass them without changes. Lawmakers return Monday.
Lawmakers are expected to turn their attention next week to congressional maps, which have not been made public yet. Georgia’s growing populations means the state is gaining a seat in Congress. That seat is expected to be placed in north Georgia, which has seen the largest population boom.