Pleas for fairness meet political reality in Georgia redistricting

Georgia legislators listened to comments from the public about redistricting during meeting Wednesday at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Martinez. The meeting was the last opportunity for public comment before lawmakers start designing new political maps. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

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Georgia legislators listened to comments from the public about redistricting during meeting Wednesday at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Martinez. The meeting was the last opportunity for public comment before lawmakers start designing new political maps. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Legislators plan mapmaking process similar to last decade’s

MARTINEZ — In public meetings across Georgia, the people told their representatives what they want out of redistricting: unified communities, transparency and fairness.

What they get might be much different.

Now that census numbers have been released and public meetings concluded, Georgia legislators will begin crafting new districts for Congress and the General Assembly.

The Republican lawmakers who control the process won’t make any promises that redistricting will be any different from a decade ago, when they released the first maps the Friday before a special session, passed them without any changes, and split up cities and counties.

At stake is power and control of one of the most politically divided states in the country, one that narrowly backed Democrat Joe Biden for president but continues to be dominated by Republicans at all levels of state government.

ExploreCensus results: Georgia’s growth and diversity set stage for redistricting fight

Lawmakers say they heard the public’s comments at 11 meetings from the coast to the cities. But that doesn’t mean they’ll act on them.

“You’re going to find a great consistency between our rules and the rules that were adopted in years past, which I think most people continue to view as fair,” Senate Redistricting Chairman John Kennedy, a Republican from Macon, said after the last public hearing Wednesday in Martinez, near Augusta. “We’ve been given some very useful information specific to the districts or geographic areas where people have come and spoken to us.”

A repeat of the process from 2011 is what many people told lawmakers they’re afraid of.

“I worry these hearings will be nothing,” Marijke Kylstra of the advocacy group Fair Count said at the Martinez meeting. “If people can’t comment on the maps once they’re drawn, and there’s no clear way for complaints to be responded to and remedied, then these hearings will have been revealed as an empty gesture.”

Georgia’s mapmakers haven’t yet committed to any rules or guidelines. It’s also unknown when they plan to meet at the Capitol for a special redistricting session, which could occur anytime between September and the end of the year.

Ten years ago, House and Senate redistricting committees adopted guidelines for their work: among them, hearings would be open to the public, and lawmakers would avoid dividing communities along political lines.

But the results didn’t always reflect those goals.

Lawmakers crafted maps behind closed doors before their public release, and many Democratic-leaning metro areas were split into multiple legislative districts, with lines drawn in a way that gave the state’s Republican majority an advantage.

Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University, said while lawmakers pay attention to comments made at the public hearings, it remains to be seen whether they will take any of the comments into consideration. One thing that rarely changes is that Republicans vote with Republicans, and Democrats do the same.

“It’s purely a party-line vote every time, no matter what party is involved,” he said. “Each party is going to try as hard as they can to benefit their candidates, and that’s mission No. 1.”

In the election after the last redistricting process, Republicans gained one U.S. House seat, six state House seats and two state Senate seats.

Legislators are required to set new political boundaries so that each district represents roughly the same number of people, accounting for Georgia’s 1 million population increase since 2010. Most of the growth occurred in metropolitan areas.

The state’s increasing diversity, with the white population shrinking to 50%, will pose a challenge for Republican lawmakers trying to create favorable districts. They must comply with the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racially discriminatory maps that dilute the voting strength of Black voters.

But the courts have upheld allowing politicians to draw lines for partisan gain as long as they don’t explicitly reduce the strength of nonwhite voters based on race. And for the first redistricting year since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, maps in Georgia and other states with histories of discrimination don’t need to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.


Redistricting in Georgia

What happened: State legislators heard from the public during 11 public meetings across Georgia before they start redrawing the state’s political maps.

The latest: U.S. census numbers released Thursday showed substantial population growth in suburban areas, and the state’s population became increasingly diverse over the past decade.

What’s next: The Georgia General Assembly will begin drawing new political maps and then hold a special session to approve them sometime this fall.

ExploreRedistricting in Georgia: What is it and how will it affect you?