Census pointed to 6th District nip and tuck, but GOP maps turned into major surgery

State Rep. Bonnie Rich, a co-sponsor of the redistricting bill, shakes hands after it passed Monday. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State Rep. Bonnie Rich, a co-sponsor of the redistricting bill, shakes hands after it passed Monday. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When the U.S. census released a detailed population count in August, data showed the 6th Congressional District had nearly the exact number of people necessary for a congressional district.

The district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs — which Democrat Lucy McBath flipped from Republicans in 2018 — had 657 more residents than the 765,136 that were required for each district and was the closest of the state’s 14 congressional seats to being right on target.

Democrats said that should have made the 6th District the easiest one to redraw during the recently completed General Assembly special session.

Instead, the Republican-drawn map shifts about 45% of the district — or about 355,000 residents — from Democratic-leaning DeKalb and Fulton counties out of the district and brings in about the same number from Republican-leaning Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth counties. The change takes it from a competitive district where McBath won with 55% of the vote in 2020 to a district that could safely favor Republicans.

Democrats call it quintessential partisan redistricting.

“This map makes your intent obvious to legislatively draw and quarter Congresswoman Lucy McBath and scatter to the four winds all the Black and brown voters that put her in office,” Brookhaven state Rep. Matthew Wilson said during the House debate.

Redistricting is required every 10 years to ensure that districts have the same populations following the U.S. census. The newly drawn map is designed to give Republicans a 9-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans currently hold eight of the seats.

Democrats decried the changes to the 6th District, saying Republicans were targeting McBath by creating a district that stretched from metro Atlanta to North Georgia. They said the Republican-drawn maps approved by the General Assembly this week put partisanship ahead of creating an accurate representation of what has become a 50-50 state politically.

Georgia’s population increased by 1 million over the past decade, with the growth coming from people of color — who predominantly support Democrats — while the number of white Georgians — a majority of whom support Republicans — declined.

Republicans said the changes were necessary because of population growth in the Atlanta area and decreasing population in rural parts of the state. House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, called it “misleading and disingenuous” for Democrats to focus on one district and not take the entire map into account.

“Yes, the 6th (was over) by a mere 657 persons, but the districts touching it, and those not touching it, required movements that the 6th and all other 13 congressional districts could not escape,” Jones said Monday during floor debate of the map.

Senate Redistricting Chairman John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, told reporters that a lot of thought was put into shifting voters across the state to accommodate growth in metro Atlanta and other urban areas.

“To pick out any one county or any one district is really hard to do because anytime you make one shift or one change in any area, it affects everything around it,” he said.

However, while rural Georgia lost population, all the congressmen from outside of metro Atlanta were guaranteed districts that heavily favor their reelection. McBath was the only Georgia member of Congress given a district she probably couldn’t win, which is why she is now planning to run in the Gwinnett County-based, Democratic-leaning district of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.

Vastly changing districts to benefit the party that’s in control is not a new phenomenon. When Democrats had control of the General Assembly during the 2001 redistricting process, they drew political district lines in oddly shaped, sometimes elongated ways to combat a growing Republican threat to their General Assembly majority. Those maps were ruled unconstitutional, and a judge redrew them.

While this year’s maps haven’t been drawn into what in 2001 were called “Picasso” districts, it’s clear that Republicans searched for ways to hold on to their majority in the General Assembly and Georgia congressional delegation, said Charles Bullock, a longtime University of Georgia political scientist who wrote the book “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.”

“(The 2001 map) was one of the worst I’ve ever seen from any state,” Bullock said. “Republicans (today) do utilize the advantage of being the majority to try to prolong that. But they don’t have to go to the extremes that we’ve seen in some other states, or that we saw in Georgia 20 years ago, to try to push the advantage.”

Bullock said Republicans took a different approach than they did 10 years ago, when they were trying to bolster their numbers to create supermajorities in each chamber. That’s evidenced in the way they handled drawing the 6th District, he said.

“It’s a district which has slipped away from the majority party and the majority party wants to regain it, so you end up doing a major reconfiguration,” Bullock said. “And, to me, the way it was reconfigured indicates also that the Republicans are well aware of the (demographic) changes which have taken place and are likely to continue taking place.”

The 6th District was at one point a Republican bastion represented by Newt Gingrich, who became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and led the GOP as it took control of the chamber in 1994. Now the district is poised to return to the Republicans.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, said some observers might say Republicans drew the maps the way they did out of fear of political change. She said it was more a fear of losing power.

“Because redistricting in this way, drawing districts so contrived as to be ludicrous, to shore up power that is clearly fading, looks like a balding man trying to fool the world with an embarrassing combover,” Au said. “Because no matter how hard you try, it’s evident to everyone how desperately you’re trying to hide what you’ve lost already.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.