Californians bring anti-gerrymandering message to Georgia

Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant, right, chats Thursday with members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission — from left, Jodie Filkins Webber, Gabino Aguirre and Stan Forbes — at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP on Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant, right, chats Thursday with members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission — from left, Jodie Filkins Webber, Gabino Aguirre and Stan Forbes — at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP on Thursday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Voters in Georgia would benefit from a more accountable and democratic government if they’re given the power to draw the state’s electoral maps, according to members of California’s independent redistricting board who are visiting Georgia this weekend.

They're bringing a message that government should be run by the people, not by politicians who draw districts to ensure their re-election.

The members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission say Georgians could benefit from a system that emphasizes representation over political parties’ efforts to preserve their power. They’re speaking in Atlanta, Athens, Macon and Savannah on a trip funded by a Harvard University grant to support the replication of California’s redistricting process.

Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant, left, and members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission — from left, Stan Forbes, Jodie Filkins Webber and Gabino Aguirre — discuss the subject of redistricting Thursday at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP. Bondurant represents the plaintiffs in a North Carolina lawsuit involving redistricting that appears headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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But change would be much harder in Georgia than in California, where voters signed a petition to put the initiative creating an independent board on the ballot in 2008.

Unlike California, Georgia doesn’t have that kind of direct democracy. The only ways for Georgia to enact a similar system would be for the General Assembly to cede its redistricting power or for the courts to rule that redistricting for partisan purposes is unconstitutional.

Proposals to remove partisanship from Georgia's redistricting process haven't gone far. A state House committee held a hearing on the issue this year but declined to vote on it.

“California has successfully been able to end partisan gerrymandering and actually been able to turn it back over to the people,” said Jodie Filkins Webber, the Republican chairwoman of the commission and an Orange County attorney. “It’s about opening up public participation regardless of what your party affiliation is.”

About 51 percent of Georgia voters supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but Republicans control nearly two-thirds of the General Assembly and every statewide office.

Gabino Aguirre, a Democratic member of the California commission, said citizen-run redistricting increased voters’ trust in government and resulted in fewer candidates who appealed to their political party rather than their constituents.

“It seems to work to eliminate gridlock,” said Aguirre, a retired high school principal. “What we find is that the level of participation in government has gone up.”

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission has 14 members: five Democrats, five Republicans and four commissioners from neither party.

The commission heard from thousands of voters in 2011 before approving state and congressional maps that gave no weight to protecting incumbent legislators. Instead, the commission made maps based on factors such as geographic compactness, grouping communities together and protecting minorities' voting rights.

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two redistricting cases by ruling against Democrats in Wisconsin and Republicans in Maryland. The court didn't address whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

But another case involving North Carolina's districts could soon reach the Supreme Court. In that case, a federal court ruled that the state's congressional districts violate the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and freedom of speech. Republicans control 10 of North Carolina's 13 districts even though overall, GOP candidates running for Congress won just 53 percent of the vote in 2016.

“It makes a mockery of the electoral process,” said Emmet Bondurant, an Atlanta attorney representing the North Carolina plaintiffs. “It contributes to the extreme partisanship that you have in Congress and in the state legislature since there’s no reason to reach across the aisle when the district is rigged in your favor.”

The California redistricting commissioners said Georgia’s Republican majority in the General Assembly should create an independent redistricting process before it loses power at some point in the future, when Democrats could then gerrymander seats in their favor.

“The public took charge of the process (in California), and the politicians hated it. But they’ve come to accept it because that’s what the public said they wanted,” said Stan Forbes, a California commissioner without a party affiliation who owns an independent bookstore. “It gives the public an outcome that’s much fairer.”

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is visiting Georgia through a $100,000 grant awarded last year by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The commissioners are also visiting several other states.