A nationally-renowned expert on redistricting gave a grim prognosis for the outcome of Georgia’s redistricting later this year.
This year is the first time in more than half a century that Georgia and other southern states will be redrawing their political maps without federal oversight.
For that reason, “It’s [an] absolute certainty that they (Georgia lawmakers) will gerrymander the districts without any compunction about fairness,” Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant told Atlanta Civic Circle. “These will probably be the most gerrymandered districts the state has ever seen.”
Every 10 years, states redraw their congressional maps based on the latest census data. The intent is to make sure districts have equal population and representation. With the exception of about a dozen states that use independent redistricting commissions to redraw their maps, redistricting is done by elected officials in each state. Sometime this fall, Georgia legislators will begin redrawing political lines that will likely reshape — the state’s political future – and fuel partisan firestorms — for years to come.
Redistricting is done at all levels of government: local school boards and city councils, state legislatures as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.
Expect the term “gerrymandering” to be tossed around a lot during this year’s redistricting process. Gerrymandering occurs when political boundaries are manipulated so that one political party is given an undue advantage.
And that’s exactly what Bondurant expects will happen due to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that killed two key provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Those two provisions required southern states to get federal approval or pre-clearance to make any changes in their elections or voting rules.
“They’ve given states a blank check to rape, murder, pillage, and burn when it comes to redistricting,” Bondurant said.
”What has happened and what will happen [is] the republican-dominated legislature will gerrymander the statehouse and state senate to guarantee a large republican majority in all three bodies of Congress: the state senate, state house and the federal House of Representatives,” Bondurant said. “It’s not a good thing. You’re allowing a political party to essentially rig elections in their favor. Even though the majority of Georgians will prefer democratic candidates, you won’t remotely have a share of these state house or senate or congressional seats under the current setup.”
Bondurant, a partner at the Atlanta law firm of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, knows of what he speaks. The trial attorney has spent his 50-plus-year career trying cases involving reapportionment as well as other issues at the heart of democracy.
In 1964, at the age of 26, Bondurant successfully argued Wesberry v Sanders, which held for the first time that congressional districts throughout America must contain equal population — essentially, leading to the one person, one-vote rule. He was also the youngest member of a team of lawyers in Toombs v Fortson that forced the Georgia legislature to comply with the Equal Protection Clause by reapportioning both state and house districts to comply with the one-person, one-vote rule.
These days, Bondurant doesn’t hold out much hope that gerrymandering won’t occur during Georgia’s redistricting efforts this fall.
“There’s very little you and I can do,” Bondurant said.”The maps will have already been drawn by the time they have public hearings and get public input. All the public protests will have exactly no effect. It’ll be like going down to the sea and yelling at the tide coming in.”
Bondurant also noted, “our state constitution doesn’t provide much protection against gerrymandering.”
Two possible remedies to circumventing gerrymandering in Georgia are pending in the U.S. Congress. The For the People Act or S1, currently before the U.S. Senate contains a provision that would prohibit states from gerrymandering congressional districts, Bondurant said. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021 would reinstate the federal preclearance provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he added.
Both face the threat of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate.
The passage of those two federal bills “doesn’t look promising,” according to Bondurant.
Still, Bondurant encourages people to get involved and learn more about the process.
“People should show up at (public hearings on redistricting). They should write to their legislators,” he said.
Meanwhile, voting rights advocates and organizations along with redistricting experts are hosting virtual events across Georgia to help communities understand how redistricting works, its impact, and what individuals can do.
“We’ve got to pay attention and get involved in this mapping process to make sure that districts are drawn that give voters, all of us, an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of choice,” Fred McBride of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told viewers at a virtual “Redistricting 101 session” hosted in May by the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. “I didn’t say draw districts so that my favorite candidates could get elected, I said draw districts so that black voters, Hispanic voters Asian voters, Native American voters, Pacific Islanders, all of these groups have an equal opportunity.”
McBride cited an example in North Carolina where lawmakers split the campus of North Carolina A&T, a historically black college. Half of the campus was put in one district; the other half in another.
“That is the perfect definition of diluting and weakening voting strength,” McBride said.
There are mapping programs that can help people understand first-hand how redistricting works, McBride said. He also noted there are organizations — including his — that are helping people and communities learn how to draw plans they can take to their legislators.
“We want you to play a role and be involved, Just like we asked you to get out there and vote, we’re asking you to get out there and draw your district, and make sure that that district is drawn in an equitable fashion,” McBride added.
Redistricting 101: By The Numbers
- House seats in Georgia: 180
- Senate seats in Georgia: 56
- Georgia’s U.S. congressional seats: 14
- U.S. jurisdictions that undergo redistricting every 10 years: more than 90,000
- States with independent redistricting committees: 12
Redistricting Terms You Should Know
Packing: The practice of concentrating or “packing” certain voters into one district which ensures that an elected official or a certain party can continue to be re-elected again and again. It also reduces that party’s power and influence in other districts. The 4th and 5th districts — both of which are 59 percent black — are examples of packing, Bondurant noted.
Cracking: The practice of spreading and dispersing a particular group of voters throughout different areas to dilute their voting power. Despite Georgia’s becoming more diverse after the 2010 census (the nonwhite population of the state had grown 44 percent), Republican mapmakers created the new 14th Congressional in the state’s mostly-white northwestern corner. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial, ultra-conservative Q-Anon candidate, was elected to represent that district.
Upcoming Redistricting Events
The Urban League is hosting a series of virtual one-hour Town Hall meetings throughout the state through September. The redistricting meetings begin at 6 p.m. The next meeting is Thursday in Savannah. The other meetings will be in Augusta, July 14; Columbus, Aug.12, and Macon, Sept. 9. Click here for details or contact John Moye at the Urban League at 404-809-5476.
Join the National Redistricting Foundation on Tuesday, June 15 for a panel discussion on the history of redistricting in Georgia. Get details and register here.