In rebuke to the Legislature, Cobb looks to adopt its own election map

Under new district lines adopted by the state, Commissioner Jerica Richardson could be forced out of office in January.
Commissioner Jerica Richardson (center) ran for District 2 commissioner in 2020. Now, she is at risk of losing her seat after state lawmakers drew her out of her district earlier this year. AJC File

Commissioner Jerica Richardson (center) ran for District 2 commissioner in 2020. Now, she is at risk of losing her seat after state lawmakers drew her out of her district earlier this year. AJC File

In a last-ditch effort to prevent a Democratic commissioner from being forced out of office, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners next month will attempt to overrule the state Legislature and install a local election map of their own.

The proposal represents an unprecedented legal gambit that would upend Georgia’s redistricting process, which has long been controlled by the state Legislature. It’s also a long shot to succeed.

The General Assembly in February passed into law new electoral maps for the Cobb County commission, as it does for every county across the state to account for population shifts in the once-a-decade U.S. Census. The county’s proposed changes would allow the two commission races on the ballot in November to proceed under the lines adopted by the Legislature, then the districts would shift to the local map in January.

This year, the Cobb commission maps were especially contentious. Traditionally, the state Legislature defers to the local delegation in county-level redistricting. But in Cobb and some other Democratic-led counties, the Republican-controlled Legislature this year overruled the local delegations and adopted districts tilted in favor of GOP candidates, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found.

The map also draws current District 2 Commissioner Jerica Richardson, an East Cobb Democrat, out of her own district, effectively forcing her to either move or resign her seat — two years before the end of her term — when the new districts take effect Jan. 1, 2023. Under state law, commissioners have to live in the district they represent.

Richardson said some lawmakers suggested she move from East Cobb, which has been her home for over 20 years, into the newly drawn District 2 in order to preserve her seat. She bought a house there last year.

”To have that even be a part of the conversation has been hurtful,” she said in an interview with the AJC. “My brothers went to Walton and Dickerson and Mount Bethel. I grew up right across from the Avenues. This is the area that I know.”

Now, with the November 2022 election looming, commissioners plan to vote in October to amend the map by invoking “home rule,” a provision in the Georgia Constitution that grants certain legislative powers to local governments, including the ability to amend certain local acts approved by the General Assembly.

It’s not clear, however, that redistricting is among those powers. The constitution prohibits counties from invoking home rule when it pertains 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.”

If the Democratic-led Board of Commissioners ultimately votes to install its own electoral map, which was previously endorsed by the local delegation and more closely mirrors the current district lines, it would likely face a court challenge.

Richardson said she has sought legal advice from both the county attorney and outside counsel and believes the state constitution will have to be interpreted to determine the extent of power given to counties under home rule.

“Let’s just say that there has been a lot of good research done on this, and that it would not just be done frivolously,” Richardson told the AJC. “Our legal department has no hesitation with saying no to something.”

The county attorney did not provide a statement, but county spokesman Ross Cavitt spoke briefly with the AJC about the process the board will undertake.

“This is just kind of an unprecedented situation,” Cavitt said. “It will be nice to have courts or somebody weigh in on, really, what is proper and what’s not.”

State Rep. Ed Setzler, a Cobb County Republican who sponsored the map adopted by the Legislature, dismissed the county’s efforts as unlawful because the state has the power to set district lines, also known as reapportionment.

“There’s no case law that addresses it because there’s never been a lawsuit. Because it’s never been done. Because they have no power to do it,” Setzler said to the AJC. “Reapportionment has been completed for them. A state law’s been passed, signed by the governor, that establishes the districts of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. So there’s nothing they’re gonna do by home rule that overwrites that.”

Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen, the chair of the Cobb delegation from Smyrna, applauded the county for attempting to push back against the Legislature for what he said was an unprecedented move to draw an elected official out of office.

“The Republican General Assembly, basically, is looking to remove a duly elected member of the Cobb County Commission by drawing her out in the middle of her four-year term,” Allen said to the AJC. “Now, I’m not sure that we should be fighting one unprecedented move with another by now trying to exert local control or home rule on a county level, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.”