AJC Watchdog: Will Georgia act to ‘unrig’ the system?

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

During the most recent presidential election, you might have heard a whisper or two that the system is “rigged.”

Well, it is, but not in some clandestine way that requires spies and wire taps. Instead, it's rigged right in the open and by design, especially in Georgia, which is one of the least competitive states in the nation when it comes to our elections.

Last year, 81 percent of incumbents for state legislative seats ran unopposed in November, and 82 percent of open seats were uncontested in the general election. Why? One reason is the process of drawing legislative districts is so partisan: incumbents draw districts that favor themselves.

Under the state constitution, the General Assembly is charged with drawing the maps for the state’s 14 congressional districts, and they draw their own districts too. As a result, the Republicans, who control both chambers and the governor’s office, are keen to draw districts that favor their majority.

To do this, they pack minorities and other traditionally Democratic voters tightly into a small number of mostly urban districts and spread out conservative voters as much as possible to protect GOP incumbents and maybe pick off another Democratic seat here or there.

They are at it all the time. Last week, the House Republicans pushed through a bill changing the district lines for eight GOP members and one Democrat, making the Republican districts stronger for incumbents, in part by taking some predominantly white precincts from Rep. Shelia Jones, D-Atlanta, and replacing them with predominantly black ones.

Dang Republicans.

Of course, the Democrats were the bad guys in 2001 when they met with then-Gov. Roy Barnes and drew up equally partisan maps in an last-stand attempt to hold on to their mastery of state government. That process sought spread out black voters in an attempt to give Democratic incumbents enough juice to hold back the red tide of Republicans.

Dang Dems.

Republicans (and many black Democrats) howled then like modern day Democrats howl now, but neither party wants to lose control over making the maps when they have the majority. As a result, overly partisan maps rob our votes of the power they would have if we all lived in more competitive districts. And there is a cost to that.

Senate Resolution 6 would put redistricting in the hands of a panel of citizens — five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents who are registered voters but who are removed from the political process because they’ve not served in office, worked on a campaign or contributed large sums to any candidate for at least a decade.

How those 14 Georgians would be chosen is a column unto itself. Here’s the short version:

The chief justice of the State Supreme Court convenes a panel of retired judges to review a pool of qualified applicants.

The retirees come up with 60 names.

Legislative leaders from each party whittle the group down to 36 names (a dozen in each category).

The chief justice of the State Supreme Court randomly draws eight names from the remaining applicants.

And finally, those eight folks selected by the chief justice choose the final six to get the 5-5-4 panel.

Pressure to maximize partisan advantage

Obviously this Rube Goldbergesque method is meant to make it difficult for lawmakers to game the panel, but the mechanics are less the point than the goal.

The bill says these people should be chosen for their “analytical skills, ability to be impartial, and appreciation of the diverse demographics and geography of the state.” The assumption there is that the people doing it now don’t fit that description.

“Partisan political bodies are not good at drawing fair districts that represent the people,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, chief sponsor of the plan. “There’s too much pressure to maximize partisan advantage.”

If adopted, this new commission would be charged with drawing up the maps for Georgia’s Congressional and state legislative districts and holding hearings throughout the state to get the feedback of other citizens. The districts should be “as compact as possible” and “shall not be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.” Again, that assumes we ain’t got that now.

Once the maps are drawn, lawmakers still have to approve them, but they can only do so with a simple up-or-down vote. No amendments. If the General Assembly votes the maps down, they go back to the commission with suggestions from lawmakers. If lawmakers vote them down a second time, they can come up with their own maps.

Parent said it would be politically difficult for lawmakers from either party to turn down a legitimate map twice simply to redraw one for political purposes.

“They’d have to point out real reasons why the maps were inadequate,” she said.

SR 6 requires approval from the voters to amend the Georgia Constitution. But before voters could have a say, lawmakers would have to vote the measures out of committee and approve them in both chambers.

Measures adopted in 13 states

One of the problems with this kind of reform is that many voters don’t understand the problem.

A 2006 Pew Research Center poll found 89 percent of voters had heard little or nothing about redistricting's role in competitive elections. Almost half of all voters didn't know who was in charge of redistricting in their state.

That may be changing. Thirteen states have some sort of commission drawing their legislative maps and last month close to 200 supporters of SR 6 packed a committee room across from the Capitol for a short-notice hearing at 5 p.m. on a Monday.

There wasn’t even a vote scheduled, but these voters sentenced themselves to fighting rush-hour traffic, paying to park and finding the right room just to say the process isn’t working. Parent was impressed.

“There were people from all over,” she said. “The people do not view this as a partisan issue.”

She and some others believe momentum is building toward wresting redistricting out of the hands of incumbent lawmakers and party hacks. In 2015, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s independent commission, which serves as one of the blueprints for Parent’s plan.

"The people of Arizona turned to the initiative to curb the practice of gerrymandering and, thereby, to ensure that Members of Congress would have 'an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people,'" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, quoting James Madison from the Federalist Papers in her opinion for the majority.

Parent’s resolution is stuck in committee and has no hope of passing this year. For now, Parent is playing an incremental game. She’s hoping to get a final hearing before this year’s session closes out and reload for 2018.

The plan has the backing of groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

“We firmly believe that picking elected officials should be in the hands of citizens,” said Kelli Persons with the Georgia chapter of the League of Women Voters. “We believe that the citizens should be the ones with the pens drawing the maps.”

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.