Census sets political wheels in motion

The release of Georgia’s 2010 census data marks the start of an exclusive, high-stakes treasure hunt in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. The hunters are Republican politicians who harbor congressional ambitions; the prize is a new congressional district the Legislature will create based on the population numbers – one that is guaranteed to have “GOP” written all over it.

That means aspiring congressmen will try their best to have the new district drawn in their back yard.

"It's going to attract a lot of interest,"said state Rep. Roger Lane, R-Darien, chairman of the House committee responsible for drawing new maps. Asked whether any of his colleagues had started whispering guidance in his ear, he deadpanned, "Not a one," then added, "I'm kidding."

Every 10 years, the districts of all 435 U.S. House members, thousands of state legislators throughout the nation and innumerable county and city officials are redrawn according to which areas have gained population and which have lost it. This summer, legislators will meet in special session to redraw Georgia’s congressional and legislative lines.

Strong growth in north Cobb, Gwinnett, Cherokee, Forsyth and other counties north of Atlanta means those areas will gain not only a congressional seat but as many as five or six new seats in the General Assembly. Conversely, vast swaths of southern Georgia, which have stagnated or even lost population, will kiss legislative seats goodbye.

Most of the high-growth areas vote strongly Republican, while the low-growth areas are the last remaining habitat of an endangered species: the white, rural Democrat (or former Democrats recently turned Republican). To illustrate: Republicans hold 21 of the 25 fastest-growing state House districts; Democrats hold 21 of the 25 fastest-shrinking districts. Overall, GOP-held districts gained almost 1.3 million residents, while Democrat-held districts gained just over 200,000.

Another trend sure to shape the political map is a strong surge of black and Hispanic residents out of the urban core and into Atlanta’s suburbs, including some northern cities such as Sandy Springs, Lawrenceville, Smyrna, Mableton, Roswell and Alpharetta. Under federal law, the map-makers can’t draw districts that impinge on the ability of black, Hispanic, Asian or other minority voters to elect the officials of their choice.

In practice, concentrating minority voters in certain districts generally dovetails with GOP aims by packing white voters -- the Republican base -- into the other districts.

For example, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, in south Georgia the line-drawers may swap some areas between the 2nd Congressional District, represented by black Democrat Sanford Bishop, and the 8th District, Represented by white Republican Austin Scott – thus making both incumbents safer.

For the first time in Georgia’s modern political history, Republicans hold virtually all the redistricting cards. They dominate both houses of the Legislature and hold the governor’s mansion and the attorney general’s office.

As the map-making gets under way, only two things stand between the GOP and further dramatic gains:

• The U.S. Justice Department (currently run by Democrats), which, because of Georgia’s history of racial discrimination, must approve its redistricting maps;

• The increasing diversity of many areas just beyond the metro Atlanta core, which hold out the possibility that a few of the newly configured legislative districts will be winnable by Democrats.

When push comes to shove under the Gold Dome, though, Republicans can adopt maps as GOP-friendly as they think they can get away with under the federal Voting Rights Act. “Democrats can object and scream,” Bullock said, “but they don’t have the votes.”

On the other hand, Lane said, his goal is to draw districts that will withstand legal challenges -- unlike the ones drawn by the Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2001. Those were supplanted by court-drawn maps in 2004 after they were found to fail constitutional standards of fairness.

"My goal is to draw the maps in such a way that they stand up to legal scrutiny," Lane said. Because, he said, one thing is certain about the new maps: "Somebody will challenge them."