Rural Georgia population losses make district drawing tricky for Republican leaders

State House District 139, which includes Unadilla and the rest of Dooly County, saw its population decline by 16% between 2010 and 2020, meaning it will probably see change later this year in redistricting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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State House District 139, which includes Unadilla and the rest of Dooly County, saw its population decline by 16% between 2010 and 2020, meaning it will probably see change later this year in redistricting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

For decades, rural Georgia has been home to the state’s most powerful leaders — first as Democrats and now as Republicans.

But an ongoing decline in the rural population could make it difficult for some small-town lawmakers to hold onto their jobs once the General Assembly redraws voting districts this fall.

The five state Senate and five state House districts that lost the most residents between 2010 and 2020 — about 68,000 residents — are in rural parts of the state, according to U.S. census figures released last month. Meanwhile, the districts that have grown the most are all in metro areas near Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah.

House District 139, which encompasses Dooly, Macon and Taylor counties and parts of Peach County in central Georgia, lost 16% of its residents — or about 8,600 people — in the past decade. Senate District 12, which includes all or parts of 11 counties in southwest Georgia, lost nearly 10% of its population, about 16,000 people.

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

The process will be run by Georgia’s Republican majority, which will configure maps that give it a political edge in next year’s elections. Typically during redistricting, the majority party moves district lines in ways that help it retain control while the minority tries to hold onto the seats it has.

But the rural parts of the state that are watching populations decline — at the same time metro areas are seeing huge growth — are likely going to lose districts. So Republicans will want to draw GOP-leaning districts in the increasingly diverse suburban and exurban parts of the state.

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“This will be a continuation of a pattern that has been going on for about 50 years of South Georgia losing seats to North Georgia, and more specifically losing seats to metro Atlanta,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist and author of the book “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.”

State Rep. Gerald Greene, a Cuthbert Republican who represents a nine-county district in southwest Georgia that has declined by 4,000 people since 2010, said it’s too early to worry about what redistricting could mean for him.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen yet,” he said. “I’m not going to speculate on anything right now. We just have to wait and see.”

Bullock said in the past, when there were more rural Democrats in the Legislature, legislators would pair two Democrats in one district, assuring one would get beat or retire.

“I’m not sure they’re going to be able to do that this time,” he said, in part because there aren’t many rural Democratic lawmakers to go around, and because those that are happen to be Black.

Rural Democrats represent the three Senate districts that had the most population loss in the past 10 years, Senate Districts 12, 26 and 15. In the House, Democratic state Rep. Patty Bentley of Butler represents the district that shrunk the most. All four legislators are Black.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, states are prohibited from diluting the voting power of nonwhite populations by carving up their districts or, for instance, by lumping rural Black lawmakers into the same district to protect white Republicans.

“You have to be careful if you’re dismantling any districts currently held by an African American legislator,” Bullock said. “That would surely get them sued.”

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Bentley said rural lawmakers have always had concerns about the loss of population and what it would mean for the people they represent.

“Of course I, along with colleagues from both parties, have concerns in rural Georgia,” she said. “We’re all concerned with how this could place us in a position that we may lose some seats. We certainly don’t want that to happen. And I’m hoping that I’m not one of those that will be affected to that level.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, said it was too early in the process to discuss the particulars of any potential changes to district lines.

“Every time there’s a census, everybody knows there’s adjustments made around the state,” Dugan said.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent said that while some of the districts with the biggest losses may have Democratic representation, rural Georgia overall saw its population drop — and most of those seats are filled by Republicans.

“Overall, the Democratic districts are in much better shape populationwise than the Republican ones,” the Atlanta Democrat said.

Bullock said Republicans will have to decide whether they want to plan for short-term or long-term control. If short-term control is more important, they will try to craft as many Republican-leaning districts as possible. But if they are thinking in the long term, Bullock said, they’ll decide which districts they can confidently hold for the next decade as Georgia’s population changes and cede the rest.

Bullock said whatever the maps the Republican-controlled Legislature approves, they will be tested over the next decade.

“When you’re drawing these maps, you’re not just thinking of 2022 and 2024, you’re drawing districts that they want to hold on to for 10 years,” he said. “What we can see looking back at this last decade was Republicans were on target for 2014 and 2016. It was only in 2018 that things started slipping away from them.”

In 2018, Democrats flipped 11 House seats and two Senate seats. They were less successful in 2020, only gaining two seats in the House and one in the Senate.

On the state level, Republican-held House districts grew at a slightly faster rate than those represented by Democrats — and are becoming increasingly racially diverse. Those gains were heavy in counties around metro Atlanta such as Cherokee and Forsyth counties.

Population grew at a higher rate for state Senate seats held by Democratic lawmakers, but Republican-represented Senate districts also saw an increase of nonwhite residents. Historically, the majority of nonwhite voters support Democratic candidates in Georgia.

But Parent said it’s going to be more and more difficult to draw Republican districts in Georgia, especially in the quickly growing metro areas.

“There just isn’t as high a proportion of Republican voters in Georgia as there used to be,” she said, noting the increased racial and ethnic diversity of the state. “They don’t have many places to go. They’ll try. But the options for them aren’t that great when you look at the census numbers. They’ll have to lose seats.”

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