ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers returned to the Capitol Wednesday with maps on their mind, beginning a special session called by Gov. Brian Kemp to redistrict Georgia's congressional delegation, state Senate and state House.
The General Assembly must redraw electoral districts at least once every decade to equalize populations following the U.S. Census. Georgia added more than a million people from 2010 to 2020, swelling some districts and draining others.
Republicans face obstacles to continued dominance as more of the state's population becomes concentrated in metro Atlanta and around Savannah. GOP-dominated rural areas, especially in southern parts of the state, will see decreased representation.
"I think it's no secret that Republicans are stronger in rural Georgia than they are in metro areas," House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, told reporters. "Some of our Republican colleagues may end up being left behind, and that's a tough part of this."
This will be the first time in decades that Georgia lawmakers won't be required to get federal approval of their maps after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act.
The headline-grabbing issue for lawmakers will be whether Republicans target suburban Democrats Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, whose congressional victories reduced the delegation's partisan balance to 8-6 Republican from the 10-4 advantage Republicans had when they drew the current map.
Early maps have suggested the GOP will only go after one of McBath and Bourdeaux in an attempt not to overreach. A Senate Republican map aims to recapture McBath's seat by adding Republican Forsyth County to the 6th District. The flip side of that plan creates a safe Democratic seat in southern Gwinnett County that Bourdeaux could hold.
With U.S. Rep Jody Hice running for Secretary of State, there's no incumbent to protect in his seat, so his Republican colleagues could sharply shift his 10th District northward.
While the House and Senate traditionally defer to each other on drawing their chambers, both are interested in the congressional map. The state House has yet to release a congressional proposal, so it's not clear how far apart they are.
Senate Republicans hold a 34-22 edge, and the map they released Tuesday seeks to protect incumbents. Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chairman John Kennedy of Macon said the panel would hold hearings beginning Thursday and could vote to send a plan to the full Senate on Friday.
To offset population losses in south Georgia, the proposal removes Sen. Tyler Harper's district and relocates it to Gwinnett County. Harper, of Ocilla, is running for agriculture commissioner. The plan also dismantles Sen. Bruce Thompson's district and relocates it from Cherokee and Bartow counties to Roswell and Sandy Springs in north Fulton County. Thompson, from White, is running labor commissioner.
Both those new districts might be won by Democrats, but Republicans shifted a district held by Democrat Michelle Au of Johns Creek to take in more Republican territory, possibly imperiling her. Republicans would use what's left of Thompson's district to aid suburban GOP incumbents whose districts have been getting more Democratic.
Fair Districts GA, a group that tries to prevent gerrymandering, gives the Senate proposal an F, saying that its likely 33-23 split is far too Republican to reflect the state's overall partisan balance. The group also faults the map for having only one district where parties are expected to be competitive.
The plan House Republicans proposed Tuesday could sacrifice five GOP-held seats in an attempt to help their remaining incumbents. The GOP now has a 103-77 margin in the House. The map draws a number of Republicans and Democrats into shared districts, which guarantees one won't win reelection. And because Georgia state lawmakers must live in their districts for at least a year before they're elected, incumbents drawn into unfavorable districts won't have the option of moving before the vote on Nov. 8, 2022.
The plan creates a number of new Democratic-leaning districts that don't have incumbents. Only one new clearly Republican district would be created, in fast-growing Forsyth County.
Fair Districts GA gives the House Republican map a B, saying its likely 98-82 Republican majority is within the range of projected outcomes based on simulations of what maps could look like, although it could be better.
Lawmakers must at some point redraw the state's five Public Service Commission districts. Those utility regulators run statewide, but must live in a particular district. It's unclear if that will happen in the special session or later.
Senators have said they will hold hearings on whether Atlanta's wealthy Buckhead neighborhood should be allowed to secede from the city, but no final vote on the issue is expected before the 2022 regular session.
Some conservative activists rallied Wednesday to demand that Kemp let lawmakers decide on a further review of Donald Trump's 2020 loss in Georgia to President Joe Biden. Kemp has shown little inclination to allow such a review.