Cobb County advances new election map, setting up fight with the state

The vote will test the limits of local control in Georgia, in an attempt to protect a Democratic commissioner’s seat.
District Two Commissioner Jerica Richardson is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

District Two Commissioner Jerica Richardson is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

The Cobb County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted along party lines to override the state Legislature and install a new electoral map in a last-ditch — and legally fraught — attempt to keep a sitting Democratic commissioner from being disqualified from office.

The first-of-its-kind vote will test the limits of local control under home rule in Georgia, setting the stage for a court battle over whether county governments have the power to amend their own district lines.

If the county’s strategy succeeds, it would represent a sea change in Georgia politics.

The state Legislature has long controlled the redistricting process for Cobb and the 158 other counties across the state, in addition to state Legislative and U.S. Congressional lines, all of which have to be redrawn once a decade to account for population shifts.

Traditionally, the General Assembly has deferred to local lawmakers in drawing county commission maps. But this year, the Republican-controlled Legislature bypassed the local delegation in Cobb and a few other Democratic-led counties in order to pass election maps that are more favorable to conservative candidates.

On Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled board voted 3-2 over Republican objections to install a map that would keep District 2 Commissioner Jerica Richardson in her seat. Under the map approved by the Legislature, Richardson would no longer live in her district, and could be disqualified from holding office when the map takes effect Jan. 1.

If that occurred, the board would become politically split, 2-2, effectively putting the governing agenda of Democrats on hold until the vacancy can be filled by a special election.

“We have the opportunity to do something about this in Cobb County and I think it would be a shame if we did not,” said Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, a Democrat. “We have a practical (responsibility) for our citizens who deserve to be served by those who they put in office.”

A second vote, scheduled for later this month, is needed for final passage.

Under the state constitution, county governments like Cobb have some home rule powers to govern themselves, and can even amend many local laws passed by the state Legislature. But legal experts say that home rule had never been applied to local redistricting in this manner, and it’s not clear whether a court will allow it.

The constitution prohibits counties from invoking home rule when it comes to eight areas, two of which include actions affecting “any elective county office” and actions affecting the “procedure for election or appointment ... of the county governing authority.”

To opponents, that’s proof that the county can’t apply home rule to redistricting. District 3 Republican JoAnn Birrell, whose district became more politically conservative under the Legislature’s map, said it was a waste of public resources to pick a fight the county can’t win.

“This action is illegal, and it goes against the constitution of the state,” Birrell said. “...I do not support this action, nor do I support wasting taxpayers’ money to move forward with this action and the legal ramifications that will follow.”

The Legislature’s attorneys agree with Birrell. But former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who lives in Cobb County and negotiated the home rule statute when it was added to the constitution in 1982, told the AJC that the Legislature intended for counties to be able to amend their own maps.

Supporters cast the vote in moral terms, saying it was wrong for Republicans at the state Capitol to end Richardson’s term prematurely. Elected in a 2020 wave that gave Democrats control of the commission for the first time in decades, the East Cobb commissioner will have two years left in her term when the new map would take effect and disqualify her from office.

East Cobb resident Kevin Redmon told the board “it should scare all of us” that the Legislature can effectively overrule the will of the people and end an elected official’s term early.

“Regardless of the legality of the matter, it is unethical,” added Megan Dominy, a West Cobb resident. “To eliminate an elected official halfway through her term is a slap in the face to all those voters who made that journey out in a pandemic year.”

But opponents said the commission’s response is unethical, too. Cobb County already held a primary election for District 1 and District 3 under the Legislature’s lines, and the general election in November will be held under them as well. If the commission’s proposed lines take effect Jan. 1, some voters would be moved into a district they did not have a say in electing, while others would be moved out of a district they just voted in.

In tearful remarks, East Cobb resident Judy Boyce — the widow of former Chairman Mike Boyce, a Republican — pushed back against Democrats who argued that Richardson’s 2020 voters were being nullified.

“I just have to ask you what happens to my vote?” Boyce said. “What you did here today nullifies my vote. My vote is not being counted, my vote is being discounted.

“...I don’t think what you’ve done here today is legal nor do I think it’s right,” she added. “I think it’s personally and politically motivated.”

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