Democrats cry foul as House Republicans redraw district lines

Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, speaks on the floor of the House on Friday, March 3, 2017. Jones spoke against House Bill 515, which changes the boundaries of her district. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, speaks on the floor of the House on Friday, March 3, 2017. Jones spoke against House Bill 515, which changes the boundaries of her district. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia House Republicans made a late bid Friday to change the district boundaries for eight Republicans and one Democrat.

The one Democrat, Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, is not happy.

Jones said she didn't know about House Bill 515 until it was being presented to the Reapportionment Committee late Wednesday afternoon.

The House voted 108-59 on Friday to approve the bill, which allowed it meet the “Crossover Day” deadline for bills to pass from one chamber to another without parliamentary maneuvering. The House vote came just three days after the bill was first introduced; most bills take weeks or months to reach the House floor.

HB 515 takes two, predominantly white, precincts from Jones' district 53 and gives them to Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. In exchange, Jones gets two predominantly minority precincts.

Jones said she had not been told the bill was coming.

“This bill was introduced at the 11th hour without the courtesy of informing me of what was going on in the district I represent,” Jones said Friday. “Regardless of the party, notice is fair and customary.”

The biggest changes strengthen Republican districts that have become more competitive. Golick won re-election in November with 53 percent of the vote over Democrat Erick Allen, down from the 60 percent to 40 percent margin by which Golick won in 2014. Golick declined comment.

In south Metro Atlanta, Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, has seen his margin of victory fall from 6 percentage points in 2012 to less than 2 percentage points in 2016. HB 515 takes several GOP-heavy precincts out of Griffin Republican Rep. Karen Mathiak's neighboring District 73 and gives them to Strickland.

House Speaker David Ralston, R- Blue Ridge, said the bill is far from unprecedented.

“With all respect I would remind them the last time they drew a map it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court,” Ralston said, referring to an early 2000s reapportionment process when the Democratic majority drew district maps that were rejected by courts for gerrymandering.

“The proposals, I’ve looked at them, and they hurt no member of the House of Representatives at all,” Ralston said. “Period.”

The power of reapportionment, i.e., the power to draw district maps, rests with the majority party in Georgia. Typically, districts are drawn after every U.S. census, but interim changes like these have long been made by Republicans and Democrats alike.

But Jones said it is the voters who are being hurt.

“As legislators we must all commit to a fair and transparent process,” Jones said. “Both with our colleagues under the Gold Dome and with our constituents. We must never lose sight of the voters.”

HB 515 also makes minor changes to districts at the request of a few Republican lawmakers in Cobb County and North Fulton.

Jones objected to the last-minute change at Wednesday's hearing but Reapportionment Chairman Johnnie Caldwell, R-Thomaston, refused to allow public comment and said he told Democratic leaders about the proposal the previous day.

Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said Caldwell violated established House tradition. "Protocol says if you're going to change someone's district you discuss it directly with that member and that did not happen prior to them (introducing) this bill," Abrams said.

Republicans claim that Jones will benefit because her district becomes more Democratic. But Abrams said that might offer general election protection but there are considerations. “You’re also changing the make-up of that district, which means you’re changing the constituency,” Abrams said. “And there are two stages to elections — primaries and generals.”

Caldwell on Friday said “in relation to the Democrat individual” — meaning Rep. Jones — her district is not adversely affected.

“I can assure you there has been no sinister act,” Caldwell said. “Nothing under-handed has come about.”