ATLANTA – Georgian citizens want new maps of legislative constituencies and Congress that are fair, transparent and drawn without regard to politics.
One after another, they have said so during the first four of 11 public hearings the General Assembly is holding across the state this summer to begin the ten-year process of adjusting district lines to reflect the population changes over the past 10 years.
âThis is not about being a Republican or Democrat, but seeking to do what is best for the citizens who inhabit our state,â Rebecca Yardley of Cleveland, Georgia, Republican President of the 9e Congressional District, told members of the state House and Senate district redistribution committees on June 29 during a hearing in Cumming.
But if history is any indication, the Republican majority in the legislature will design cards to maintain its control over the General Assembly and regain one or two seats in Congress lost to Democrats in 2018 and last year.
Democrats drew politically motivated maps when they controlled the legislature, including a 2001 map that created multi-member House districts in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to stem the Republican momentum that resulted in the victory of the GOP in both legislative chambers in 2004.
Republicans returned the favor in the 2011 redistribution, even though they held large enough majorities in the General Assembly that they did not have to resort to strategies such as multi-member constituencies.
âThe majority party invariably comes up with cards to try to maintain its majority status for the next decade,â said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has written extensively on the redistribution. âThe minority party is largely observers in this process. “
Two wrinkles promise to make the redistribution different this year. First, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the United States’ decennial census, which produces the data on which the redistribution is based.
As the data is only expected at the end of September, the General Assembly will not be able to convene a special session to approve the new cards until October or November. Special redistribution sessions usually take place at the end of the summer.
“There will be a mad race to shoot the districts before returning in January [for the 2022 session]said State Senator Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.
It will also be the first redistribution since the mid-1960s without the protection of a key section of the 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states with a history of racial discrimination, including Georgia, no longer had to âpre-clearâ their parliamentary and legislative district maps with the Department of Justice.
Without the right to demand card preclearance, voting rights advocates who believe that one or more of the new cards discriminate against minority voters will have the only option of a legal challenge.
“We still have the Voting Rights Act, legal protections that ensure people of color can elect representatives of their choice,” said Karuna Ramachandran, director of statewide partnerships for the association. Asian Americans Advancing Justice nonprofit, based in Norcross.
In recent years, many states have decided to withdraw the policy from the redistribution process by giving the task to an independent commission.
âWe need an independent commission to carry out this process,â said Reverend James Woodall, Georgia State President NAACP. âTime and time again we see this process in the hands of elected supporters. “
In 14 states, commissions have the primary responsibility for drawing the maps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Commissions in six states act only in an advisory capacity, and five states have commissions that only serve as a safeguard if their legislatures cannot agree on a plan.
Iowa is unique in that its legislative staff draw the cards under a legal requirement that they disregard existing protection or other political concerns.
Bullock said he does not foresee any movement in Georgia towards the independent commission path. On the one hand, many states that have adopted independent commissions have only done so when their citizens have organized a voting initiative, an option not available in Georgia, he said.
âLawmakers like to be allowed to draw their districts,â he said. “With an independent commission, they are giving up something.”
Bullock said that when it comes to drawing new legislative constituency lines, the main goals of Republicans in Georgia will be to protect their incumbents and maintain their majorities in the state House and Senate. However, these goals could conflict with each other, he said.
“The risk is that the majority party draws a number of constituencies in which its majority is narrow,” he said. âIt could work in 2022 or 2024, but with a wave of elections or a demographic shift, they could lose a number of districts.
âIf they decide, ‘We can defend a smaller number of districts for 10 years,’ they might concede some districts. “
As for the Congress card, U.S. Democratic Reps Lucy McBath of Roswell and Carolyn Bourdeaux of Suwanee will have the bigger targets on their backs. McBath won the 6e seat of the Congressional District in 2018, and Bourdeaux won the 7e District headquarters last November.
Atlanta’s two northern suburbs were historically Republican strongholds, but Democrats have benefited from demographic shifts that have dramatically inflated their minority populations.
Winning both seats would return the GOP to a 10-4 dominance over the Georgian delegation in Congress.
But Bullock said reclaiming the two districts could be a risky endeavor, as Republican cartographers would have to distribute the region’s GOP voters. He suggested that GOP lawmakers would do better to tackle just one of those seats by packing Republican loyalists in the targeted district.
“The less aggressive approach would be to concede one of these districts to the Democrats,” he said.
While weighing the various political ramifications of the maps they draw, Republicans cannot lose sight of some basic legal requirements and redistribution best practices. Districts should be as populated as possible, although legislative maps can vary by up to 5%.
In addition, the legislature is supposed to try to keep âcommunities of interestâ together and respect municipal boundaries.
This was what was most important in mind for many speakers during the first round of public hearings.
“I understand that Georgia is developing and that we are becoming more and more diverse,” Camille Brown, member of the Cherokee County Republican Party executive committee, said during the Cumming hearing. âBut your goal should be to keep the communities together. “