A college town divided: Liberal Athens split into Republican districts

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Gerrymandering results in GOP control of Athens

ATHENS — The bustling streets of Athens are packed with students, professors and townies this time of year, making it the kind of liberal college bastion that would easily elect Democrats — if it weren’t sliced into political pieces.

Twisting district borders divide the University of Georgia and the city, from the Arch to Stegeman Coliseum and extending into rural areas, creating a gerrymander that put Republicans in power over the region nearly a decade ago.

When Georgia legislators redistrict the state again this fall, the GOP majority will likely be able to keep its domination over the Classic City.

Athens-Clarke County overwhelmingly supported Democrat Joe Biden with 70% of the vote, but the state’s political maps are drawn in a way that splits the area so that Democrats control just one of seven elected legislative and congressional seats. Republicans hold two of three state House seats, both state Senate seats and both congressional districts that include Athens.

“It’s absurd. We’re not a Republican county or city,” said Jim Smith, a local attorney who usually votes Libertarian. “But it doesn’t matter who they are as long as you can call them up and raise Cain.”

Every 10 years, state lawmakers draw state and federal districts based on new population numbers from the U.S. census.

Athens is an example of how redistricting can distort representation for political advantage. Cities and counties in Georgia are often separated by district lines, sometimes as a method to weaken the voting strength of the minority party. When Democrats held majorities in the General Assembly 20 years ago, they similarly manipulated district boundaries to weaken Republican power.

Three state House districts intersect at a point south of Sanford Stadium, meeting at a stoplight along Lumpkin Street at University Court.

Sanford Stadium is in one district, Myers Hall in another and Legion Field in the third. From there, the districts stretch for miles toward the north, west and south, reaching into Barrow, Jackson, Madison, Oconee and Walton counties, where there are more Republican votes.

Running through downtown Athens, a House district line follows a path along Broad Street, with the Arch on one side and College Square Plaza on the other. Local and franchise restaurants and shops are represented by a Democrat; the university by a Republican.

“This is gerrymandering 101,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor and author of the book “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.” “Democrats look at it and say, if they were drawing the maps, they’d get two districts out of this area, not just one. Republicans figured out a way to get two out of three.”

State Senate districts also separate the state’s geographically smallest county into two parts, but the boundary is drawn north of downtown instead of dividing it and the university. In addition, the county is cut into two congressional districts, represented by Republican U.S. Reps. Andrew Clyde and Jody Hice, who both draw their core support from sparsely populated areas in northeast and east-central Georgia.

State Sen. Frank Ginn, a Madison County resident who is one of two Republican senators representing Athens, was in his first term in office in 2011 when the current maps were drawn and said he didn’t have a lot of input in the process.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of counties that come up in separate districts, but that’s one of those things,” Ginn said. “As a former county manager, I’ll tell you, sometimes I thought that was an advantage to have multiple representatives or multiple senators.”

Athens-Clarke County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Denson, who also serves as a county commissioner, said Democrats are bracing for what districts may look like after lawmakers draw new maps during a special session this fall.

“We only have one Democrat who represents us out of seven offices,” Denson said. “And I think that shows that many Athenians are being disenfranchised and not accurately represented.”

State Rep. Spencer Frye, the county’s lone Democrat in the General Assembly, said state legislators should keep communities unified with maps that allow voters to elect representatives who reflect their political beliefs.

“For elected officials to pick their own voters is a travesty of the intent of the system,” said Frye, whose district was packed with Democratic-leaning neighborhoods and voted 76% for Biden. “I firmly believe the solution could be, as other states have enacted, a nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to take the politics out of it.”

The primary legal justification for splitting up cities and counties is that each district must have about the same population to ensure equal representation under the principle of “one person, one vote,” set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.

Highly populated cities and towns don’t fit in a single district, with 59,500 residents per state House seat. The unified city and county area of Athens-Clarke County has a population of about 127,000, according to the the 2020 census, enough for two representatives.

But legislators have leeway about where they draw district lines and how they divvy up communities. They can separate cities from schools, and housing from campus, often using roads as the borders.

“The voice of Athens is diluted by areas that are more rural, which do not have the same interests as the people of Athens,” said Vicki Krugman, who lives near the city and is a board member for the group Fair Districts GA. “Now when people are speaking out, unfortunately we have very little in terms of our representatives listening to us.”

Other areas were also split during redistricting in 2011, a method called “cracking,” when similar constituencies are divided into different districts. Some cities with split districts include Conyers, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Rome and Waycross, according to Fair Districts GA.

Politicians have carved up the Athens area for political benefit several times over the past 20 years.

In 2005, the General Assembly redrew an Athens-area state Senate district that was at the time held by Brian Kemp, who was planning to run for agriculture commissioner. Legislators split the county into two Senate districts, sorting more Republicans into one of the districts and helping Republican Bill Cowsert, Kemp’s brother-in-law, defeat Democratic state Rep. Jane Kidd. Previously, Athens was contained within one Senate district.

Then in the first elections after statewide redistricting in 2011, Republicans took over two of the three newly created House districts. Democrats briefly gained control of all three seats after special elections in late 2017, but Republicans restored their majority in the county after elections in 2018.

Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines, state Rep. Marcus Wiedower and Cowsert — who all represent parts of Athens-Clark County — didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Marianne Beverstein, an Atlanta native who moved to Athens two years ago, said it would make more sense to keep the city in one district.

“It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” she said while shopping for UGA apparel with her husband in College Square Plaza. “A lot of people probably don’t even realize how broken up it is.”