Drawn apart: Redistricting might separate representatives from voters

State Rep. John Corbett, left, and state Rep. Jason Ridley confer in the House Chambers during the 2021 legislative session at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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State Rep. John Corbett, left, and state Rep. Jason Ridley confer in the House Chambers during the 2021 legislative session at the Georgia Capitol. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Relocated Georgia legislators would be stuck in upcoming elections

Some Georgia legislators will find themselves drawn into the same districts as fellow members of their own political party next month, and they’ll be unable to move to another district that’s closer to their previous constituents.

The lawmakers will be stranded because of the late-in-the-year timing of Georgia’s upcoming redistricting session.

Redistricting creates the possibility that majority Republicans will pair several incumbent Democrats in the same state House or Senate districts, where only one can emerge victorious during elections next year.

This year’s remapping comes with a unique ability to target lawmakers that Republicans want to get rid of: They can’t move to a different district in time to run for office because redistricting is occurring so late in the year. The Georgia Constitution requires candidates for the General Assembly to live in their districts for at least a year before an election.

“It takes away the option, potentially, of voting for someone who you like and trust. The majority can take that off the table if they’re forcing two individuals to compete against each other,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, an expert on redistricting.

ExploreAn illustrated guide to redistricting in Georgia

It’s unclear how many lawmakers would be affected because legislative leaders haven’t released proposed General Assembly maps.

But the majority party uses redistricting to gain a political advantage every decade, a power leveraged by the Democrats 20 years ago and Republicans in 2011. Republicans currently control 58% of all legislative seats in Georgia, a state whose voters are nearly evenly split between the two political parties.

Unlike members of Congress, state legislators are required to live within the boundaries of the districts they represent. A proposed Georgia congressional map released by the state Senate last month displaces several current members of Congress: Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath, along with Republican U.S. Reps. Andrew Clyde and Barry Loudermilk.

State Rep. Patty Bentley, a Democrat from Butler in Middle Georgia, said she’s concerned that her district could be combined with that of a neighboring representative. Her district lost more population than any other in the state over the past decade, putting it nearly 15,000 residents short of the 59,511 people each of Georgia’s 180 House districts needs, according to census data.

“The public should pay attention. A legislator could get drawn out of their district and wouldn’t meet their residency requirement in order to run,” Bentley said. “This is what could happen and most likely what will happen in redistricting. It will affect Democrats because we’re not the majority.”

To some extent, pairing legislators is unavoidable because of Georgia’s growing population, with rural and more Republican counties losing people — and representation — to metro areas. Each district is required to have equal population numbers.

“In a lot of areas, because of demographic shifts, you will often end up having two people from their own party,” said Ed Lindsey, a former Republican legislator from Atlanta who was the House majority whip during the last round of redistricting 10 years ago. “Redistricting is always an interesting time, when your closest political ally and friend suddenly is somebody chomping away at part of your district.”

The lateness of this year’s redistricting was caused in part by the slow rollout of population figures, released by the U.S. Census Bureau in August. But it wasn’t until six weeks later when Gov. Brian Kemp called for a special redistricting session to occur in November, locking legislators into living in the districts they’re assigned to in upcoming maps.

In the meantime, four states have already approved new maps: Indiana, Maine, Nebraska and Oregon.

Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker David Ralston, said there’s no way to change the Georgia Constitution’s residency requirements on a tight redistricting timeline.

“The state Constitution provides qualifications for members of the state House and Senate,” McMichen said. “Among those qualifications is the requirement that they ‘shall have been legal residents of the territory embraced within the district from which elected for at least one year.’ ”

The majority party in the General Assembly has a history of shuffling legislators of the minority party during redistricting in order to gain a political advantage.

In 2001, when Democrats were in control, they paired incumbents in 20 House districts and five Senate districts, Bullock said. All but one of the House districts matched Republicans against each other, and all five Senate districts disadvantaged Republicans. Later, the courts redrew Georgia’s political maps, pairing 33 representatives and 12 senators.

Then during redistricting a decade ago, with Republicans in the majority, they placed 12 Democratic legislators and eight Republicans in the same districts. In the next year’s elections, Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and five seats in the House.

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Elena Parent was a freshman Democratic state representative in 2011 when the Republican majority in the General Assembly used redistricting to move her into the same House district as Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb. Parent chose not to run against Holcomb, a friend. In 2014, she ran for the state Senate and still holds that seat. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Elena Parent was a freshman Democratic state representative in 2011 when the Republican majority in the General Assembly used redistricting to move her into the same House district as Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb. Parent chose not to run against Holcomb, a friend. In 2014, she ran for the state Senate and still holds that seat. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Elena Parent was a freshman Democratic state representative in 2011 when the Republican majority in the General Assembly used redistricting to move her into the same House district as Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb. Parent chose not to run against Holcomb, a friend. In 2014, she ran for the state Senate and still holds that seat. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

One of the victims of redistricting in 2011 was Elena Parent, a Democrat who at the time was a freshman state representative. The Republican majority combined parts of her Atlanta-area district with one of her Democratic peers, state Rep. Scott Holcomb.

Parent decided against seeking reelection the following year rather than compete with Holcomb, a friend and fellow attorney. Two years later, Parent won a state Senate seat that she still holds today.

“Pairing of incumbents can be part of a practice of gerrymandering that’s really designed to skew the partisan balance,” Parent said. “It’s unfortunate and can be unjust.”

Partisanship won’t necessarily be the primary reason that Georgia’s Republican majority separates incumbents from their previous districts, said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Democrat from Sandy Springs.

Republicans will likely be more concerned with drawing maps that preserve their overall majorities than with targeting individual legislators, he said.

“The majority might work more to fortify existing seats than to try to make some large amount of gain,” McLaurin said. “And if that’s true, then that means that they probably will spend fewer resources on ambitious expeditions to go to whatever lengths they can to try to mess up certain people’s prospects.”