This article was written by Krista Brewer for Political Peach.
Redistricting and apportionment, the process where we create electoral districts for congressional and state elections, is looming around the country. Since this is mandated by the U.S. Constitution only every 10 years, most of us don’t have a strong redistricting muscle. It’s time for people who care about good government and representation to put on our civic engagement gear, and get ready for what some are expecting to be a political battle.
Is It Redistricting or Gerrymandering?
After the census is completed, the results are used to draw congressional and state districts of roughly equal size. Sounds simple, but politics intervenes. Redistricting done to favor one political party over another, termed gerrymandering, often results in voting districts that discriminate against minorities, or make it difficult for one community to elect a representative of its choice. To get some ideas of how creative gerrymandering can be, see these links. Gerrymandering is a time-honored tradition done by both political parties to hold onto power, or to make sure incumbents have favorable districts. Politicians gerrymander to pick their own voters, and it is usually done behind closed doors, with little or no transparency. But redistricting abuses do not contribute to a healthy democracy.
Partly in recognition of redistricting abuse, the Voting Right Act of 1965 (VRA) was enacted to protect minority voting rights and to prevent racial discrimination in voting. It requires an approval, known as preclearance, by the U.S. Department of Justice before any electoral changes could be enacted in states that had a history of racial discrimination, including Georgia. However, the Supreme Court ruled, in Shelby v. Holder (2013), that this preclearance provision was unconstitutional. Thus, our upcoming process will be the first redistricting that Georgia has not had the protection of the federal preclearance provisions of the VRA since its 1965 enactment. However, any new maps must still comply with other provisions of the VRA’s prohibition of racial voting discrimination.
Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, was involved in the 2011 redistricting and remembers, “The public meetings they held last time were not well advertised, nor attended. The elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans seemed to be more worried about getting districts that would help them get reelected. And a lot of communities were not having their voices heard. It was a bloodbath then, and I guarantee it will be a bloodbath this time also.”
This year’s process does promise to be fraught with new difficulties. The biggest change for Georgia and other Southern states will be the loss of the preclearance provision. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings have given free reign for political gerrymandering and made protections by the federal courts less likely. Lastly, COVID-19 caused a delay in completion of the census, delaying publication of data needed to draw maps until September 30. This delay means that the legislature will not meet in a special session to approve new maps until November at the earliest.
Georgia is at High Risk
According to a report by NYU’s Brennan Center, “Single-party control of map drawing is by far the biggest predictor of redistricting abuses.” This describes Georgia. Our large increase in minority population is another risk factor. Still another is that our legislature has really no statutory requirements or guidelines for drawing voting districts. A growing number of states have put electoral map drawing in the hands of an independent redistricting commission, or at least have standards that the legislature must follow. But our elected officials have not done this and have no guard rails or guidelines to produce fair maps.
Another hazard for redistricting is that many expect the census in Georgia to have significant undercounts of people of color. “We won’t know for sure until final results are reviewed next year, but we do know from the self-reporting stage of the census, that communities of color were underperforming in the low double digit percentage points. This gives us an idea that the undercount of minorities might be significant. If we do have these undercounts, we may have trouble showing racial gerrymandering in the map drawing,” says Rebecca DeHart, CEO of Fair Count, a nonpartisan organization that works to ensure an accurate census and fair maps.
Atlanta attorney Brian Sells who focuses on redistricting cases agrees, “The number one issue in this redistricting cycle is going to be the explosion of Latino and Asian voters in Georgia and particularly in Gwinnett County. One major question is are they going to be visible or invisible.”
Because of recent increases in immigrant populations, some advocacy groups have a particular focus on these growing communities. “We’re trying to bring the voices and the stories and the issues into this process. We will be working locally to talk about our issues and to create spaces for folks to share,” explains Karuna Ramachandran, campaign manager of the Georgia Redistricting Alliance (GRA) and the director of statewide partnerships for Advancing Justice Atlanta. “Under-resourced communities across Georgia should be particularly mindful of the way the lines are drawn and the attention they are getting from their elected officials.”
Another aspect of redistricting is the degree to which district lines follow county boundaries. “Respect for political subdivisions is a factor that can blunt the gerrymandering impulse,” observes Sells. “How much will county and city boundaries be respected? A lot of our lives in Georgia are structured around counties. If Republicans wanted to get greedy they could crack all of the counties, but that’s not the way we’ve historically done redistricting.”
What Can We Do
Get educated: A number of groups and elected officials are starting to have town hall presentations about redistricting. One recent, informative presentationfeatured Senator Elena Parent and UGA Professor Charles Bullock and was moderated by newly elected Senator Michelle Au.
Get Ready: Here is information from Common Cause with a possible timeline (the process is already behind for public hearings). But the legislative special session is not yet scheduled. Speaker of the House David Ralston has said it might be when the “frost is on the pumpkin,” suggesting November.
Speak Out: Each chamber of the legislature has a redistricting committee. Reach out to members for the House and Senate committees, even if they are not your own representatives, to inquire when public hearings are going to be held. Also, ask them to commit to transparency in the process, fair maps that represent communities and that comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Committee members should also allow ample time for public review before a vote on final maps, and the public should be provided with explanations for mapping decisions.
Ask for Specific Reforms: Additionally, Fair Districts Georgia, a coalition of 20 non-partisan groups, has developed criteria that districts should be:
- Balanced between political parties
- Reflective of racial makeup of population
- Responsive to shifts in voting patterns
- Aligned with communities of interest
Redistricting, like the census, is a process that is a common endeavor for all Americans. Each state has its own rules and procedure, but in the end, we all need to come up with maps that allow voters to elect candidates of their choice that will represent them well and fairly, and that reflect the diversity of each state. Our democracy surely depends on it.
SB 202 Observation: Has anyone noticed that supporters of Georgia’s voter suppression bill seem to have stopped trying to defend their line about “easier to vote and harder to cheat?” And the media is not wasting much time on the “both sides” effort. Seems it’s just become accepted that the bill’s provisions will make it harder to vote, and no one can produce much evidence of cheating. But the law stands for now. And boards of elections around Georgia are trying to figure out how to implement and pay for these new requirements.
Listening: A head turning podcast about Wikipedia that gives me faith in the quality of its information.
About the Author
Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer