The 13th Congressional District in Georgia, known as the "dead cat" district, gerrymandered together multiple communities across metro Atlanta.

The 13th Congressional District in Georgia, known as the "dead cat" district, gerrymandered together multiple communities across metro Atlanta in the early 2000s before being struck down.

Credit: U.S. Census Bureau

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and the party in charge of redistricting going to great lengths to keep power. In Georgia, this was true during the last two cycles to varying degrees, with Democrats carving out highly favorable districts in 2001 before Republicans did so to a lesser extent in 2011.

Now, GOP support is on the decline but Republican lawmakers have the chance to extend their power through redrawing of state and Congressional political maps.

The task will be made easier by the fact this will be the first full redistricting since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision ended the requirement that Georgia and other states with a history of discriminatory practices have maps pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department.

But interviews with lawmakers involved with redistricting in previous years by the Georgia News Lab and GPB News shine light on the complicated deliberations that go into the mapmaking — and the acknowledgement that maintaining power for the majority often takes precedence over expressed interests of voters — so long as the law is being followed.

Former Republican state Sen. Judson Hill, who served as chair of the redistricting committee from 2007-2010, said there are a number of complex factors that lawmakers have to consider when drawing districts, from population count to demographic makeup to the political leanings of voters. 

But Hill notes that changes made to a district don’t happen in a vacuum: Population has to be added and subtracted from a neighboring area, which can quickly force a cascade of changes across many districts.

“When you do that with 180 legislative House districts or 56 senators or 14 congressmen, it gets complex real fast,” Hill said. “That’s when you’re moving neighborhoods as opposed to precincts or counties.”

Take the 14th Congressional District, for example. Census numbers show the Northwest Georgia seat held by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene needs to add between 36,584 and 36,586 residents to its boundaries to comply with the requirement for equal-sized districts.

Those added people will have to come from neighboring districts, likely the 3rd, 11th or 9th. But those districts are also underpopulated, meaning existing lines will likely have to move even further to meet the population requirement, like an ever-shifting  jigsaw puzzle. The situation becomes even more complex when community interests, political orientation and demographics are taken into consideration.

Don Balfour, another former state senator who served on previous redistricting committees, said during the 2011 cycle committee chairman Mitch Seabaugh offered to sit down with all the members from both parties, hear their concerns, explain the adjustments that needed to occur due to population changes, and worked with them on creating the best maps — that still maintained a Republican majority.

“Everybody knows how they like their lines to be drawn,” Balfour said. “The problem is it’s all got to fit within 56 sets of lines. Every single legislator — Republican or Democrat — doesn’t want the district [they represent] to become a swing district.”

In the 2011 cycle, Balfour said, only one state senator was drawn out of their district. George Hooks, a conservative Democrat known as the “dean of the Senate,” represented the Americus-based 14th Senate district, which had lost a large share of its population. The new 14th district was then created in Northwest Georgia, centered in Bartow County.

This time, Georgia’s nonwhite population growth concentrated in the metro Atlanta area will make it even harder to keep all existing incumbents in power, and seems all but certain to result in fewer districts in rural Georgia.

Nearly 100 of the 180 state House districts are below the target population size of 59,511 people — including all but six districts south of Columbus, Macon and Augusta. Gwinnett and Fulton counties added enough population to support another two state House seats each, and Cobb, Forsyth and DeKalb each grew by more than 70,000 people or at least one House seat.

In the state Senate, 24 of 56 districts are underpopulated but some are represented by lawmakers seeking higher office and could see their district boundaries obliterated to fill the gap.

Citizens and advocacy groups have weighed in with their preferences for the redistricting process at in-person town halls and an online portal, but the degree to which that input will be factored into the mapmaking process remains unclear.

Political and legal considerations also come into play. 

Former Democratic state Rep. Rahn Mayo, who served on the committee in 2011, said that the perennial threat of litigation around the redistricting process makes it difficult for lawmakers to openly share ideas about how districts could change, or incorporate public feedback into proposals.

“The presumption is that there is litigation that will ensue and everyone has to be very cautious and careful about everything said or any idea of what a district could look like or could look like to reflect the public’s interest,” Mayo said. “It makes it very tense and very uneasy for a legislator to truly engage and try to either invite the public to that [Reapportionment] office and actually draw some sample maps.”

Mayo said lawmakers are so laser-focused on their own districts that it’s hard for them to consider what’s going on with other maps.

“It’s all ultimately in some ways about self-preservation, and each legislator is in a mode of survival,” he added.

In addition to the high-profile battles between Democrats and Republicans over the total number of seats alloted, extensive scheming and horse trading also takes place within the party ranks.

Former Democratic state Sen. Vincent Fort said parties may present a united front on redistricting in hearings or in public, but tensions between individual legislators’ concerns and larger party interests can cause fractures.

“I’ve seen legislators argue about a particular neighborhood and then they cut a deal with the majority party,” Fort said. “Then guess what? They get double-crossed.”

In 2001, Democrats drew boundaries that pitted half of the Republican lawmakers in the state House against each other and many in the state Senate. In 2011, Republicans forced face-offs between 20 incumbents — six sets of Democrats and four sets of Republicans. 

While the majority party has great sway over the district-drawing process and maintaining their power, Georgia’s tight political margins, its history of federal oversight and its rapidly changing demographics could make it harder this time for the GOP to build on its current narrow advantages.

Some Republicans tout the fact that the maps they drew in 2011 received preclearance from the Obama Justice Department as evidence that they presided over the process more fairly than Democrats had in 2001, when the resulting districts were struck down by the courts.

But Fort said there is another possible reading of the Justice Department’s acceptance of the GOP’s 2011 maps.

“The impression I got was that the Obama administration did not want to give the Supreme Court a case by which to strike down the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “It was frustrating.”

In fact, not long after, the court did effectively gut the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision.

The political and legal ramifications for the first redistricting cycle since that decision remain to be seen, but Judson Hill said the committees ultimately try to follow the laws that govern redistricting to avoid court challenges that could send the General Assembly back to the drawing board — or have the courts make the changes.

But after Georgia helped decide control of the White House and U.S. Senate in 2020, and because it could flip control of Congress in 2022, judicial review of the state’s new maps seems all but guaranteed.

Beyond these political and legal considerations, former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said lawmakers must also take into account both the perception and reality of disenfranchising voters as they prepare to draw new maps, especially given Georgia’s recent history with extreme mapmaking, including the 2001 redistricting cycle that helped push the state toward Republican control.

“When politicians don't listen to outcry, you know, we've seen ramifications,” he said. “In the 2002 reapportionment, there were multimember House districts created and some of the Senate district lines were extreme — and they probably had an effect in the election in 2002.”