ATLANTA – Members of the public expressed concerns over an expedited redistricting process at a recent town hall meeting held by the state lawmakers who will be drawing the new boundaries, while some Democrats had their own warning for the public: Pay attention.
The House and Senate redistricting committees in the Georgia Legislature, dominated by Republicans, held the first of a series of town hall meetings in mid-June. On the same day, at the same time, some Democratic leaders held their own redistricting seminar to express their opinions and concerns.
Seventeen members of the public spoke to the legislative committees, including Bedansh Pandey, a student at Northview High School in Johns Creek.
“Asian Americans like myself account for nearly a third of our communities’ growth in the past 10 years, and yet in those 10 years, we haven’t had a single Asian American representative until the 2020 election,” he said.
It wasn’t until last November that Pandey’s Senate District 48 elected an Asian to represent his community, Sen. Michelle Au, the first Asian American in the Georgia Senate.
Another voice for Asian Americans, Lavita Tuff, asked the lawmakers to make translators available during the redistricting process so members of that community could participate.
Tuff, policy director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, said about half of Georgia’s immigrants are interested in redistricting but don’t understand English well enough to follow along.
“With English-only approaches and methods, the Georgia Legislature will for sure leave out those who want to be engaged, educated, and informed,” she said. “As is, proposed town halls are by no means accessible or inclusive, especially to those who are considered limited English proficient.”
Perimeter College student Niles Francis mentioned the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder which stopped the requirement of all states, including Georgia, to get the approval of new district maps from the U.S. Justice Department. Francis said he hoped the committees would let Georgia residents observe the proposed maps before they are finalized.
Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, chair of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee, said during the hearing that the lawmakers did not have a firm timeline for their work this fall because they still don’t have the population data they need to begin drawing the maps.
The U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution both require the state Legislature to draw new districts based on population changes found by the census, which is conducted every 10 years. That puts state lawmakers in charge of redistricting for Georgia’s U.S. representatives in Washington as well as its state house and senate members.
The census numbers have been delayed this year and won’t be received until September due to the pandemic.
Lawmakers and their staff will have little time to develop the new maps before they need to hold a special session to approve them. They want to approve the new boundaries by Nov. 8 in order for the districts to be in place for a year before the next general election. That’s important in case incumbents need to move to stay in their previous district in order to run for re-election.
Under pre-pandemic timelines, lawmakers would usually propose district maps and get public comment on them before they vote. This year, they opened the discussion to general public comments before the release of the updated census figures, an indication of a tightened timeline.
The two legislative committees have planned 10 more town hall meetings, some virtual and some in cities around the state, including Cumming, Dalton, Athens, Augusta, Brunswick, Albany, Columbus, and Macon.
During the competing seminar, a panel of Democrats argued that partisan gerrymandering has become a problem and will be used to minimize the voting power of minority communities to favor incumbents, who, in Georgia, are mostly Republicans.
Attorney Jason J. Carter, a former Democratic state senator from DeKalb County and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, said the recent changes in Georgia politics have added impetus to Republican calls for new electoral maps that he said would silence some voters and keep the GOP in power.
“You cannot keep multiracial coalitions down for very long,” said Carter. “If you have an all-white party and you are relying on that as the source of your majority rule in a state like Georgia, it is not going to last forever. Eventually, they are not going to be able to draw these maps, and they know that.”
Panel members encouraged individuals not to rely on the help of politicians and lawyers, but rather to take it upon themselves to become active in the change they want to see in their districts.
Marina Jenkins, policy and litigation director of the National Redistricting Foundation, said activist attorneys remain vigilant for opportunities to take legal action, but that’s not enough.
“Advocates, activists, and regular people should also be paying attention … to people who are drawing districts to make sure that the public sphere knows what’s happening,” Jenkins said.