Georgians Urge Transparency In Redistricting Process, Demand End To Backroom Deals
This is Part 1 of a two-part story on transparency in the redistricting process.
As the once-a-decade process of redrawing Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts gets underway, government accountability groups and members of the public are raising concerns about backroom deals and maps drawn in private, calling on lawmakers to increase transparency and public input in the process.
In April, a coalition of 20 advocacy organizations sent a letter to the leadership of Georgia’s General Assembly and members of the state legislative committees that will redraw Georgia’s political boundaries later this year, urging them to take steps to increase public participation in developing district plans.
“In the past,” the groups wrote, “the bulk of the redistricting work has taken place behind closed doors with only minimal public involvement and disclosure.”
The groups, led by Fair Districts GA, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for drawing maps free of political bias, called for new measures to ensure the process is more open, including:
- Opportunities for public input after the release of U.S. Census data needed to draw maps.
- Committee responses to input from community interest groups.
- Public release of factors considered in developing district maps.
- Early notice of hearings to consider plans and easily accessible information about redistricting efforts, including making materials available in languages other than English.
“Georgians deserve a redistricting process that inspires trust and confidence from all citizens,” they wrote.
Lawmakers did not respond, according to Fair Districts representatives.
In recent weeks, the chairs of the redistricting committees have said they are committed to making the undertaking equitable and transparent.
At the first in a series of town hall meetings aimed at gathering public input, Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), chair of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, told an online audience that he and his House counterpart, Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee), were “committed to an open, fair redistricting process.”
Rich, who's chair of the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee, assured listeners that the committees would draw on comments submitted by citizens across Georgia in developing new district plans.
“Our purpose is to hear from you, Georgians, the members of our public, our constituents,” she said.
But there are few outward signs of transparency concerns being addressed. The committees have not announced accommodations at town halls for non-English speakers, comments submitted to the committees online are not publicly available, and the chairs have not committed to holding public meetings once Census numbers are available.
“We just don't know what kind of timeframe we're going to be bumping up against,” Rich said at the first public session.
Some members of the redistricting committees have joined the calls for increased transparency and greater opportunities for public participation.
At the first town hall, State Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) pointed out that the meetings were being held with little advance notice, primarily outside the state’s most populous and rapidly diversifying regions and months before final Census data are released.
“These town halls cannot be the only opportunity for the public to participate in their redistricting process,” Butler said. “Georgians are entitled to not only examine the criteria used to create their own districts, but also provide substantive feedback on any proposed maps before they are adopted.”
“We cannot draw fair maps for Georgians without Georgians themselves being involved in a meaningful way,” she said.
What’s at stake and how it works
Redistricting has far-reaching implications for individuals, elected officials and for the country as a whole. For voters, it helps determine who will represent them and their communities. For politicians, it can mean the difference between winning reelection and being voted out of office. The outcome will help determine control of state and federal government and policy for at least the next 10 years.
In Georgia, there are few laws governing redistricting. Federal law requires that districts have nearly equal populations and that they be drawn in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. Georgia’s state constitution says only that the General Assembly is responsible for drawing state House and Senate districts and that those districts “shall be composed of contiguous territory,” meaning that no part can be disconnected from the rest.
The state constitution also calls for redistricting to take place “as necessary” following each U.S. Census, a provision that has been interpreted to allow lawmakers to redraw maps between censuses. Such mid-decade redistricting is prohibited in at least six states.
As in most states, the power to draw legislative and congressional districts in Georgia rests with the legislature. The governor has the power to veto district plans.
In states such as Georgia where one party controls both the General Assembly and the governor’s office, control over the redistricting process is almost absolute. Democrats and Republicans alike often use that power to design maps that help keep their candidates in office and maintain control of state government, even while winning fewer votes, a tactic known as gerrymandering.
Some states have assigned the responsibility for drawing district maps to nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions in an effort to limit political influence. Legislation to create a commission system for Georgia has been introduced by both parties over the years. But none have gained traction.
During this year’s legislative session, House and Senate Democrats introduced transparency legislation aimed at giving Georgians greater say in the redistricting process.
The bills, among other things, would have mandated at least two public hearings on redistricting in each of Georgia’s 10 judicial districts. Lawmakers would have been required to present plans publicly, explain the procedure used to create them, and take public comments. And the bills would have required that all redistricting meetings and deliberations be conducted in public with the plans presented on the General Assembly’s website.
Neither bill made it out of committee.
It is against that background that some Georgians are skeptical of what may transpire as lawmakers prepare to draw new maps.
“Lack of transparency, allowing for the abuse of the citizens of our state, takes place behind closed doors each decade,” said Andrew Lewis of Decatur, an executive of an educational software company, at the first town hall session. “Such abuses undermine a healthy and vibrant democracy.”
Click here for Part 2 of this story: a look at benchmarks that can be used to judge the transparency of the redistricting process.