Redistricting Zips to a Close
As the ink dries on maps for new legislative districts for Georgia House, Senate, and U.S. Congressional districts, some are cheering, others are frustrated and a few are furious. But these maps could be the poster child for politicians picking their voters. Georgia Republicans in the state legislature have a solid majority, and they used it to get the maps they wanted, rather than maps that impartially reflect the changing population of Georgia.
The Process: The state Legislative and Congressional Reappointment Committee, made up of elected representatives and senators, held a series of public hearings around the state this summer and provided an online portal for citizens to make comments on the process. In addition, numerous advocacy groups held town halls and training on the redistricting process. Thousands of Georgians learned and commented on the process. The overwhelming sentiment was for fair maps and transparency, and for districts that allow voters to elect a representative of their choice. Not surprisingly, few commenters said that map drawing should be done in secret, or that elected officials should be picking their voters. But this is exactly the maps we are getting.
The Missing Maps: The concerned citizens who followed this process and spoke up were doing so with one hand tied behind their backs. They had no maps to comment upon. Only after the draft maps were released and rushed through the November special legislative session, were folks able to see actual proposed new districts and offer meaningful commentary. Vasu Abhiraman, Deputy Policy Director and Senior Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Georgia used the analogy of asking someone to edit a book before they see the book. It’s difficult to offer meaningful edits.
A Little Timing Issue: A unique wrinkle arose in the current redistricting process that could likely have been avoided. Because of delays in receiving results of the census because of Covid, the redistricting process was pushed from summer into the fall. Enough data was released to each state in late August for redistricting to begin. With mapping software now available, maps can be produced in a matter of days, and draft maps could have been released to the public probably weeks before the legislature convened. However, Governor Kemp, in an apparent Machivellian move, set November 3 as the date for the special legislative redistricting session to begin. This late start was significant because to run in any state legislative district a candidate must live in that district for one year prior to the next general election, which in 2022 will be November 8. In prior redistricting, representatives or potential candidates who were drawn out of their district, still had the option of moving. However, because of the timing of this year’s special session, potential candidates would have had to anticipate being drawn out and move before the November 8 deadline.
The Maps We Have: The three maps, Congressional, state Senate, and state House districts, are buried on the General Assembly redistricting website. An easier site for viewing and exploring is the website provided by the nonpartisan organization Fair Districts Georgia. While numbers are still being crunched, some initial observations are clear.
Generally, these are bad, partisan maps, drawn to protect incumbent Republicans, but they could have been worse. Some observers have quipped that the maps are at least better that those drawn in Texas. “The Senate map is by far the worst for competitiveness and partisan balance,” says Janet Grant, with Fair Districts Georgia. “The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, gave the Senate map an F. The House maps are a bit better, and received a B grade from Princeton, yet only 7 districts out of the 180 seats appear to be competitive. This is really disappointing. And the Congressional map got a C grade, with eight districts leaning Republican and 6 districts leaning Democratic, which is the partisan breakdown we have currently,” Grant added.
A maddening and unfortunate aspect of these maps is that women and especially women of color did not fare well. “These maps were drawn in a misogynistic fashion to target women,” says Melita Easters, executive director of Georgia WIN List. “In the 2011 redistricting, we lost six elected women in similar fashion. We have been making slow gains in the number of women elected to state offices, and it is so unfortunate that these targeted attacks on smart, competent women keep happening for partisan and sexist reasons.”
To Easters’ point, we only have one woman of color in our Congressional delegation: Lucy McBath. Her Congressional district CD6 is dramatically redrawn to add more Republican leaning voters, making it very difficult for her to win reelection. The only other woman in our Congressional delegation, Carolyn Bourdeaux has had a significant shift in her district also. Although CD7 is a slightly more Democratic leaning district under the new map, there are still a large number of new voters that she will have to meet. In the state Senate, Michelle Au’s new district has far fewer Asian Americans, making her re-election more difficult. In state House redistricting, the residences of two women, Reps. Rebecca Mitchell and Shelly Hutchenson were drawn into the same district. They will either have to run against each other or one will drop out. Lastly, there are other examples of women who lost narrowly in 2020 and were likely running again who have been drawn out of their districts, thus protecting the Republican incumbents.
Voter Moving Day: A lot of voters will be voting in new districts due to redistricting without explanation from state map drawers. One notable example is CD6. All Georgia congressional districts have to have as close to 765,000 voting age population as possible. When the census figures came out, CD6 was only 657 voters over the target number, yet the new Congressional map moved 370,000 largely Black voters from areas around Powder Springs and Austell into CD14, which is currently represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene with a largely white Republican voting base. This article from the AJC paints a vivid picture of the change to CD6. The new map also adds more Republican leaning voters to the northern part of CD6. So, CD6 becomes a more heavily Republican district. In other districts across the state, it seems a large number of voters are being shuffled around for no clear reason. This will likely lead to voter confusion and mix ups at polling places requiring extensive voter education before the 2022 elections.
In addition to such large scale changes, there are many small changes that can have some negative effect on voting access. One situation that illustrates this is the splitting of college campuses into different state Senate and/or House districts. The ACLU’s Abhiraman detailed one example to legislative committees. Georgia Tech has a polling place on campus and is in certain House and Senate districts. All students who are registered on campus can vote there. However, there are 2,000 students living across North Avenue in student housing. These students not only are in different House and Senate districts, but also must vote at a different precinct which is several miles away from the campus.
“I actually had some hope that they would see the importance of making this small fix, but unfortunately it looks like the work that would have gone into changing this was too much to handle in the incredibly rushed timeline they were trying to stick to,” says Abhiraman. He points out that it’s hard enough to get college students to vote and we need to remove all the barriers we can.
There are likely a number of these smaller, technical problems that could have been easily corrected if the committee had allowed more time for the public to examine and comment on the maps and been willing to make adjustments.
That Pesky Voting Rights Act: A major issue in any redistricting is complying with the provisions of the 1965 Voting Right Act. “I would hesitate to speak on VRA compliance without more analysis” says Abhiraman. “But what I will say is that the maps as a whole, the movements that have been made, the changes that have been made, and the lay of the land when it comes to people of color in Georgia now, seem to violate at least the spirit of the Voting Rights Act. The VRA was meant to ensure that communities of color have their political power represented and have a meaningful opportunity to have candidates of their choice at a level that is equal to the majority. It feels like what they’ve done is to target the political power of people of color in this state and minimize it in a way that will stand for the next 10 years."
Looking Ahead: Over the next months, all city, county and local school board district lines must be redrawn based on the new Census data. This local redistricting must be approved by the Georgia Legislature, but is generally considered as “local legislation.” In other words, the full legislature is typically expected to simply ratify the wishes of the local delegation in a particular jurisdiction. However, Gwinnett County recently got an early preview of how this might unfold. Freshman Republican Sen. Clint Dixon proposed to enlarge the Gwinnett County Commission, weaken the power of the chair, and draw district lines that would make it harder for Black candidates to get elected. This came after a majority of people of color were elected to the Commission, including a Black female Commission chair. Strong opposition from residents put the brakes on this effort temporarily. But we can expect local redistricting across the state to be contentious. Voters should plan to get involved and speak out about this process as it begins in the new year.
While the next decennial census and redistricting seem a long way off, it gives us an opportunity to work for a more fair map drawing process. More and more states are moving toward independent redistricting commissions with the goal of removing maps being drawn for partisan advantage. “We need to look at the lessons learned from these commissions in other states as we work to implement this in Georgia,” says Linda Grant of Fair Districts Georgia.
Polling tells us that voters in Georgia and across the country overwhelmingly want non-partisan maps that keep communities of interest together. Both political parties have participated in partisan Gerrymandering when in power, but that does not mean this practice should continue. Moving to a nonpartisan redistricting commission should be a north star goal over the next 10 years. Georgia voters have learned a lot about redistricting during this process and are ready to move forward to implement a better process for map drawing.
Other reasons to be hopeful: Despite some losses in the current redistricting and vulnerable districts, Kimberlyn Carter executive director of Represent Georgia, which works to recruit and train progressive candidates, is optimistic. “Because we were so successful in 2020 we have some starting points with some great candidates. Secondly, I think we will have to be far more strategic in terms of how we recruit and train candidates. This next election is going to be particularly brutal and our candidates need to be ready to withstand the onslaught, and they can be with training and support. We’re looking at the districts being vacated by people running state wide. We will have some House openings because of representatives running for state Senate seats. And we will certainly have some openings to recruit for from local seats as some move to higher office. I don’t think it’s a bleak picture. I am very optimistic.”