Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder
Fair Districts GA study finds 2021 reapportionment delivered new non-competitive races
They say every ballot counts, but when it comes to the Georgia Legislature, most voters had little choice in last year’s election, thanks to the state’s newly redrawn electoral lines.
That’s one of the findings of a report released by Fair Districts GA, a nonprofit that encourages unbiased redistricting. The group partnered with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to rate the fairness of the state’s maps during 2021’s special redistricting session.
“Fair Districts GA’s view is that the Legislature could have drawn much fairer maps that would have yielded narrower margins for the majority with more competition, resulting in a General Assembly that better reflects Georgia,” the group wrote. “Our view was ignored, and the election shows the result.”
At the time, the researchers gave the state House map a B, the state Senate map an F and the congressional map a C, finding that they each stifled potential competition.
The election results largely bore out the predictions, Fair Districts found, as 42% of voters cast their ballots in an uncontested General Assembly race. Out of the 56 districts in the state Senate, 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats elected had no challenger on the ballot. Among the House’s 180 districts, 52 Republicans and 43 Democrats who won in November did not have an opponent.
Just 5% of the 3.9 million Georgians who cast a ballot for governor and U.S. senator voted in a competitive General Assembly race, defined as a race in which the winner received between 50% and 53.5% of the vote. Another 8% of those 3.9 million did not cast a ballot for the General Assembly.
Only one Senate race qualified as competitive — Lawrenceville voters sent freshman Democratic Sen. Nabilah Islam to the Capitol with 52.8% of the vote against her Republican opponent Josh McCay.
The State House had four competitive races, down from 15 in 2020 and 19 in 2018, according to Fair Districts. The four competitive districts were won by Democratic Reps. Farooq Mughal and Jasmine Clark, and Republican Reps. Lauren Daniel and Deborah Silcox.
Princeton predicted a 33-23 partisan split favoring the Republicans in the Senate, and that’s what happened. In the House, they predicted the GOP would lead 98 to 82, but Republicans did slightly better, with 101 seats to Democrats’ 79.
“So the reason it looks like it is out of the range of what Princeton was thinking might be equitable may be because Democrats didn’t put forward good candidates,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “I don’t know what happened, but it did not yield the return for Democrats that even the creators thought that it would.
The state’s congressional map created five safe seats for Democrats and nine safe seats for Republicans by splitting up the former 6th and 7th Districts and pitting Democratic Congresswomen Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux against one another. McBath won handily in the primary and sailed to reelection in the general, though Bourdeaux’ ouster helped Republicans pick up a seat now occupied by Congressman Rich McCormick.
All of Georgia’s U.S. representatives had relatively easy wins. In the 2nd District, the state’s closest congressional race, incumbent Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop defeated Republican challenger Chris West by nearly 10%.
“In terms of the level of competitiveness, legislators don’t usually see that as being one of their objectives,” Bullock said. “Good government groups always want to see that, they like to have competitive districts.”
Political scientists use the term “responsive” to describe a district’s competitiveness, Bullock said. If there is a shift in public opinion toward one party, a responsive district will reflect that in who it elects.
“The plans we have here are not particularly responsive. If you look at the congressional plan, if you shifted every district in the state 10 percentage points in favor of the minority party, well, you might be able to flip the 2nd District. That’s the only one that falls even within that kind of a range.”
Splitting up districts to benefit a political party is fine as far as the law is concerned, and both major parties have done so in the past, but splitting up voters by race could run a state afoul of the Voting Rights Act.
Plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits against Georgia say that’s exactly what happened in 2021. They want the enacted state House and state Senate redistricting plans thrown out, arguing that they dilute Black Georgians’ voting power, which would violate the Voting Rights Act.
Last February, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones found that there is “a substantial likelihood” the state’s maps violated the Voting Rights Act, but he declined to block them from going into effect because doing so might have disrupted counties’ ability to administer the coming primary elections. The case continues to work its way through the courts.
Likely weighing on Jones’ mind is Merrill v. Milligan, a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging Alabama’s redistricting plan on similar grounds. The high court heard arguments on that case in October, and what the justices decide could have major implications for Georgia.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.