ATLANTA — For the first time since 1970, Georgia is preparing to redraw electoral maps that do not need to be approved by the federal government to protect racial minorities, setting the stage for an intense fight over voting districts amid accusations of partisan power-grabbing.
After almost a year’s delay due to the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-August finally released the results on which the new voting districts will be based. The census showed minority populations have surged and white populations have declined in Georgia and nationally.
U.S and Georgia Constitutions require district boundaries be rewritten every decade after a census is taken, so the populations of each remain the same. This time, Georgia’s 14 U.S House districts will each have about 765,000 residents, the 180 Georgia districts about 59,000, and the 56 Georgia Senate seats about 191,000. The state Legislature is expected to hold a special session in October to draw these district boundaries.
In Georgia, the House and Senate redistricting committees held a series of virtual and in-person town halls in June and July to gather public comments. Many speakers raised concerns about partisan politics governing the process.
“History has shown us that gerrymandering is a tool used by both Democrats and Republicans to dilute Georgians’ power to choose their elected officials,” said Cindy Battles, director of policy and engagement for Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.
Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts in bizarre ways to help certain political parties gain, or maintain, legislative control.
Currently, Republicans have a majority of the Georgia state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office and secretary of state’s office. They also control the redistricting committees in both chambers.
Although racial gerrymandering is illegal, critics say it has been achieved through indirect means. This can include packing minority communities into a single majority-minority district, giving them just one representative while ensuring the surrounding areas remain less diverse and majority candidates have a better chance of being elected there.
“Black communities have been historically gerrymandered, redlined, and drawn out of the process,” said Fenika Miller, senior state coordinator for Black Voters Matter.
Miller advocates drawing districts through a transparent process that prioritizes the need of “communities of interest,” a term reform advocates use to describe areas with shared economic and social characteristics.
Without specifying an alternative process, she said, “It is time to put the power back to the people to choose their elected officials, not the elected officials choosing their constituents.”
Georgia has a history of running afoul of voter protections. Although the 15th amendment granted Black men the right to vote in 1870, Southern states, including Georgia, imposed a series of measures including poll taxes and literacy tests intended to disenfranchise them, in addition to rampant and violent vigilantism.
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, put federal oversight over elections in Georgia and other states with a history of racial discrimination. But that oversight was ended with the 2013 Supreme Court decision in the Shelby v. Holder case.
This decision meant that even if a judge ordered Georgia to redraw its districts, the new map would not need federal clearance. Some say it helped clear the path for more aggressive gerrymandering.
“Once these maps are drawn they are meant to be in place for 10 years,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia professor and author of Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America. “With political parties in favor of certain districts, there are always issues of possible gerrymandering.”
Sen. Elena Parent, who represents Central and North Dekalb and chairs the Democratic Caucus, recalled the last redistricting process.
In 2011, the redistricting committees had set guidelines that included keeping districts compacted. In other words, no gerrymandering. Another guideline was to protect incumbents.
But, Parent said, at one point, there was an attempt to place her and another Democrat in the same district, ensuring that one of them would not be coming back. Although the Republicans were not successful in that attempt, Parent is curious to see what will happen this year.
“This gets to the heart of the debate of who is choosing the elected officials when drawing districts, instead of voters choosing,” she said. “This is what voters dislike about partisan gerrymandering.”
Editor’s note: Fresh Take Georgia has called and emailed several members of the redistricting committees, including Sen John Kennedy, R-Macon, Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, and Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville. Only Rich, chairman of the House redistricting committee, responded with an email which said she was unable to respond to our questions as the volume of correspondence her office is receiving meant they cannot respond to each inquiry individually.