Battleground: Ballot Box | Mapping Georgia's future through redistricting
Death and taxes may be two things certain in life, but in politics you can add to the list: "The party in power crafts legislative districts to retain that power."
The once-a-decade census and redistricting process always has huge implications, but this time around, the stakes seem even higher for both Georgia and national politics.
Democrats have a narrow majority in the U.S. House, and flipped Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats in January. But Republicans control the mapmaking process here and appear likely to give themselves one more congressional district in Atlanta’s suburbs and retain control of the legislature.
Georgia has seen massive changes over the last decade, both politically and demographically.
The latest results of the U.S Census show the state has grown by more than a million residents in 10 years: not enough to add a new U.S. congressional seat, but plenty enough to make politics more interesting.
Now, Georgia lawmakers are holding a special session to redraw boundaries that will shape state politics for years to come. With Republicans in the driver’s seat but Democrats on the rise, Georgia’s soon-to-be-majority non-white population is on high alert to see that what happens under the Gold Dome is fair.
This week, we look at the good, the bad and the gerrymandering of Georgia’s redistricting process so far.
First, let’s talk numbers, and how Georgia came out in the census: 10,711,908 people that must be split into 14 congressional districts, 56 state Senate districts and 180 state House districts.
"State Senate districts will be redrawn to now include around 191,284 people," a video from the legislative reapportionment office noted. "State House districts will also need to increase in population size to around 59,511 people."
Put into practice, it means some districts have to add more people, while others will see their boundaries shrink so that each one represents roughly the same amount of Georgians. But not all of these changes happen equally across the state.
The fast-growing metro Atlanta area has more younger, diverse and Democratic-leaning population coming in, while rural Georgia is losing population — in some cases, by a lot. Census numbers show Georgia is on track to be a majority non-white state soon, if not already.
More than 1 in 10 Georgians are Hispanic. There has been a 53% increase in Asian American Georgians. And more than 300,000 new Black residents alone moved into Atlanta and its surrounding counties.
So over the summer, almost 300 people spoke at 11 hearings across the state in more than 18 hours of public comment about how they wanted the new districts to be considered to be more representative of the changing state.
“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,” Bedansh Pandy said at one hearing.
"I ask also that you do not use redistricting to suppress votes, especially for Black voters," another person said.
Nearly 60% called for fairness in drawing maps and 44% asked for more public input into the process. About 40% called for increased transparency, including public release of proposed maps and all of the information used to draw them.
Many of the speakers were young people, demanding a more active role in their future as Georgia voters.
"From Kennesaw to Athens, our schools are divided so that even though our state had the largest youth turnout in America last year, our votes are worth less," Georgia Tech student Alex Ames said.
High school student Sandy Park said she and her classmates are excited to vote once they turn 18, "but with the districts we live in divided so awkwardly, first-time voters like us have a hard time knowing which communities our representatives represent," she said. "So when young adults like us end up voting, our voices end up becoming silenced due to complicated shapes."
From Cumming to Columbus, Dalton to Brunswick, some Georgians did have actual requests to fix communities split apart or offer suggestions to make things better, like un-cracking Tifton.
“We would very much like to have our county and our city restored to a single representative district," Tifton resident Mark Hall said. "We are currently split between three districts in the state house: not only our county of 40,000, but our city of 15,000. That seems excessive for one small community.”
Some of these areas did not have strong representation during the last redistricting cycle, Bibb County resident Carolyn Hargrove explained at the Macon town hall.
“Macon-Bibb County, with a population of over 153,000, is currently drawn into five separate state House districts," she said. "This has the effect of dividing our community and diminishing our strength as a whole in addressing common problems.”
Others asked for existing communities to be kept together.
“I'd like to give you an easy decision when you start thinking about the area around Toombs and Montgomery, make it an easy decision and keep us together," Don Betts said. "There are too many good things going on that we've had happen and we are really working and striving together."
So far, some of the comments have not been made in vain. Tifton is made whole under the latest proposal from House Republicans, and Toombs and Montgomery County remain in the same districts for both chambers.
But others aren’t so lucky.
At a hearing this summer in Athens, citizen after citizen asked for the liberal bastion to have more Democratic representation instead of having Republicans represent two out of three House districts and both Senate districts.
"Currently, UGA main campus is split between Georgia House districts 117, 118 and 119 in a way that I've walked through all three districts just moving between classes,” student Logan Williamson said.
Another told Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) that there is "no chance that we would ever have of defeating you or anyone similar in your party with the dynamics that are set up in this community as is."
Instead, the state Senate map keeps two GOP districts and the House map adds another Republican seat into the mix, flying in the face of those citizens’ requests.
The Republican maps that have been released so far add Democratic seats in the state legislature across metro Atlanta by collapsing underpopulated GOP districts in rural Georgia. They limit pairings of incumbent lawmakers, opting instead to target places where Republicans are retiring or running for higher office.
But that still doesn’t mean people are happy.
Constituents of state Rep. Philip Singleton (R-Sharpsburg) have flooded an online public comment portal and in-person hearings to voice displeasure with the decision to draw him into a Democratic district based in south Fulton County.
"I see a lot of people from my county here," he said Monday in a House committee hearing. "I didn't bring 'em here, they came of their own accord. I'm blessed to to represent a phenomenal county that's very engaged in the process as you are seeing."
Singleton has clashed with fellow Republicans, including House Speaker David Ralston, and has pushed misleading claims about the 2020 election.
"To gut Coweta County the way that we’ve been gutted, and for the Democrats to come up with a better map for that area, I wonder about the party that I’m involved in," one person said.
Democratic maps also draw more Democratic districts, but where — and how many — differ.
"It wasn’t driven by the fact that we were trying to pair Republicans against Republicans, it was actually driven by the fact that where population was lost, we had to account for that in our math," House Minority Leader James Beverly said about their proposal last week.
Democrats want their Republican counterparts to give the proposals a fair hearing, and take time to process and debate changes, but that’s not really happening.
"Never did we imagine that little more than 48 hours after the start of a special session, this committee would consider voting on a proposal that Georgians have had less than 72 hours," Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said in a hearing Friday. " And it should not do so. It cannot do so without making a mockery of this process and the promises of fairness and transparency."
Third-party groups advocating for better districts have released their own maps that would put Democrats in charge — something that even the Democratic lawmakers’ maps don’t do.
Many who were expecting more extreme maps may be surprised once the final maps are enacted, but the reality of Georgia’s politics and the underlying demographic data leaves few other options, unless you want the courts to step in.
Even so, expect there to be lawsuits, since this is also the first redistricting cycle where the federal government does not have to pre-clear the state’s maps since the Shelby v. Holder decision.
One public commenter, Jexandria Dominique Prince, summed up the feeling best at a virtual hearing, noting that Georgia isn’t the same as it was a decade ago and people are paying attention.
“Like my ancestors, we are the gatekeepers for this next generation,” she said. “Change is coming. Equality is coming. We must work together to represent the diverse history of Georgia and its evolved future, so that it includes every Georgian's American dream.”
Next week, we take a look at the internal battles in the Republican Party, locally and nationally, as the biggest fight some incumbents may face is coming from within their ranks.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador; our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.