Opinion: A possible gerrymandering solution

Political parties aren’t the problem: It’s our winner-take-all system.
Rep. Richard Smith, R–Columbus, flips through a packet with revised congressional district maps during a reapportionment and redistricting hearing at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Rep. Richard Smith, R–Columbus, flips through a packet with revised congressional district maps during a reapportionment and redistricting hearing at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Growing up in Macon, I was raised on the still unfolding history of civil rights activists who have pursued the Constitution’s promise of equality and worked to ensure all people are justly represented. This legacy inspired me to commit to public service, and why, for a time, I found myself working as chief counsel to the senate of a small country in the Philippine Sea — the Republic of Palau.

Georgia and Palau have much in common. Both are lush and beautiful, with earnest, hardworking citizens. Both are democracies. Both face similar challenges, like poor healthcare outcomes, a strained education system and significant economic disparities. Having worked in U.S. politics for over 12 years now, it has become clear to me that Palau’s democracy functions better than our own. And as the people of Georgia endured yet another redistricting battle, some of the reasons why seem just as clear.

One big difference between Palau and America and my home state of Georgia is how elected representatives deal with their respective policy challenges. Far more often than not, Palauan senators operate from a default willingness to compromise to create solutions. Their system isn’t perfect, but they are not polarized by the hyperpartisanship that plagues policymaking in the United States.

Peter Simmons

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

An example of our political divide also happens to be a root cause: gerrymandering. Every 10 years, based on new census data, states redraw legislative and congressional district maps. Because communities change, redistricting is critical to ensure all citizens are lawfully and fairly represented.

However, in Georgia and throughout the United States, politicians abuse this process through gerrymandering, meaning they draw districts to empower certain groups at the expense of others. Gerrymandering converts our two-party system into a composite of myriad one-party fiefdoms, contributing to polarization and disincentivizing bipartisanship.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that Alabama illegally denied Black voters the right to vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act, increasing the likelihood that similar claims across the U.S, including those in Georgia, would be successful. As we’ve seen with Georgia’s General Assembly, elected representatives expend precious time and tremendous resources to gerrymander districts, rather than working to find solutions to the challenges their constituents face.

Despite Palau having an electoral system similar to ours, gerrymandering and political parties don’t exist there. Much of that is related to the fact that Palau’s population is about 21,000 — less than one one hundredth of a percent of the U.S. population of 334 million and about 0.2% of Georgia’s 11 million. As I learned in Palau, there’s no political need for parties at that small scale.

However, our large population requires parties for politics to work and it is our inequitable winner-take-all system that drives so much of our historic and current challenges. In the last presidential election, Georgia’s voters — almost equally divided along party lines — chose President Biden by the slim margin of roughly 12,000 votes out of approximately 5 million votes cast. Yet, if we look at the Georgia State House, we see Republicans have a substantial seat advantage — 102 to 78 — because of how our single-member district maps crack and pack voting districts.

In other words, gerrymandering enables elected officials to pick their voters rather than voters choosing their elected officials.

One of the most significant ways our nation and state could evolve to more accurately reflect the composition of Georgia’s voters is by using Proportional Representation (PR) systems to conduct our elections. While Proportional Representation can take many forms, the fundamental concept is consistent and simple: parties are afforded seats in a governing body in proportion to the votes they receive. Instead of conducting the winner-take-all elections required by our current system, Georgians would choose multiple representatives in larger multi-member districts that would afford fairer, more proportional representation for every group within the districts.

Instead of the legislature fighting over maps and fiefdoms in smoke-filled rooms, multi-member PR districts would give more voters more of a voice.

According to our state Constitution, Georgia’s government is “instituted solely for the good of the whole,” and its objective is “the protection, security, and benefit of the people.” Racial divisions have long been an undercurrent in our state and hinder Georgia from fulfilling these objectives for all people.

The recent court-ordered redistricting and the looming possibility that a special master will be appointed are the legacy of the prejudices that limit our potential. I love the Republic of Palau. I continue to be inspired by how their elected leaders work together for their citizens. But Georgia is my home, and more than anything, I want my friends, family and fellow Georgians to benefit from the most democratic, representative government possible.

Georgians are stronger together; it is my sincerest hope that our state will leave the past behind and choose a fairer, more proportional future that truly works for everyone.

Peter Simmons is a Georgia state policy advocate at Protect Democracy, focusing on strengthening democratic norms, protecting and improving U.S. elections and promoting the rule of law.