Democrats euphoric over flipping three state legislative seats Tuesday may have to spend the 2018 General Assembly session making sure they have a shot at winning re-election next fall.
Majority parties — in Georgia that’s the Republicans — don’t like losing seats, and they could file legislation during the session to redraw the district boundaries of at least some of the new Democratic lawmakers.
They could, for instance, add white, conservative neighborhoods to the districts, subtracting Democratic and minority voters, in hopes of making them more Republican by election time 2018.
Democrats did similar voter switcheroos to Republicans when they were in charge, and barely a post-election session goes by without the General Assembly at least rumbling about redrawing lines — most typically to protect incumbents.
“A lot of people are under the impression you only do redistricting every 10 years, but you can do it whenever you want to,” said Wayne Garner, who helped draw political boundaries in the early 1990s when he served as a Democratic state senator from Carrollton. “You might catch a little grief, but they could do it.”
The process is made much easier because it’s computerized. Both parties can quickly run the numbers and determine, for the most part, which party is going to win which seat based on the voter makeup of their district.
“There is nothing that is more political than the redistricting process,” said Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs and a former Republican state senator. “What will happen between now and the session is (Republican leaders) will dissect the numbers closely, look at the trend in a district, and they may adjust some precincts.”
But Paul said special elections such as Tuesday’s are just that — special — and may not be part of any particular trend. Republicans may very well be able to win back at least some of the districts next fall with different candidates or more enthusiasm among GOP voters without redoing any districts. So they may decide against making any changes.
“Our House Republican Caucus and Georgia GOP are already working to reclaim those seats lost last night in next year’s elections, when a greater percentage of Georgians will go to the polls,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Ralston didn’t mention any changes in districts, but he said the newly won Democratic seats will be the top targets of House Republicans.
District-line maneuvering can be costly. Lawmakers’ decisions to move around voters are the subject of lawsuits in Georgia, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a Wisconsin redistricting case.
One of the seats Democrats won — placing two candidates in a Dec. 5 runoff — was vacated by state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, when he decided to run for governor in 2018. Hill won the seat after Republicans made changes to the district to get rid of then-Democratic state Sen. Doug Stoner.
Paul said Hill’s district has been trending toward Democrats, so Republicans may not have been able to hold onto it much longer.
Two federal lawsuits have been filed over a 2015 redistricting plan claiming legislators illegally “gerrymandered” two state House districts by moving minority voters out of areas represented by vulnerable white Republicans.
The suit said that the boundary lines of the seats held by state Reps. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, and Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, were redrawn two years ago to increase the percentage of white voters in those districts to protect both incumbents.
Chandler’s District 105 seat in Gwinnett County and Strickland’s District 111 in Henry County have been two of the most competitive in the Republican-led 180-member House.
House members who authored the legislation have long claimed they had no ill intent in redrawing the districts, saying that the overall changes in the bill had been requested by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Earlier this year, Georgia House Republicans made a bid to change the district boundaries for eight Republicans and one Democrat.
The Democrat, state Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, was not happy and said she didn’t know about it until it popped up during a late-session House Reapportionment Committee meeting. It was approved in the House along party lines on the last day for bills to pass at least one chamber, but it stalled in the Senate.
The legislation, House Bill 515, took two predominantly white precincts from Jones’ district and gave them to white state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. In exchange, Jones would have gotten two predominantly minority precincts.
The aim was to strengthen Republican districts that have become more competitive in recent years. HB 515 is still alive and could be approved by the Senate, or amended with additions, during the 2018 session that starts in January.
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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.