After working on myriad political campaigns that included Jon Ossoff and Jason Carter, a scion of Georgia political royalty, Theron Johnson took a much-needed break.
“I put my (political) jerseys in the rafters,” said Johnson.
While on his 2019 hiatus, Johnson found his next calling. For Johnson, redistricting represents the next major challenge to strengthening the principles of democracy.
“It hit me that redistricting was where I needed to focus,” the 29-year-old said. “I had grown frustrated. I deeply care about Georgia. I want to see her at her best. The structure of the current electoral map doesn’t reflect Georgia now. It’s much more diverse, much more progressive, a much more competitive state. That’s not reflected in our state legislature. As a result, you have measures that run contrary to the will of the people.”
Johnson is Georgia State director for All On The Line, a national campaign created to improve equity in the political and voting process, including redistricting. The organization is part of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee founded and chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who sees redistricting as the “next big political fight.”
Atlanta Civic Circle spent some time chatting with Johnson about redistricting and the future of democracy. Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. Why is redistricting an important topic to be discussing now? What happens if we don’t get it right?
A. It’s important because no matter what issue is important to you — whether that’s criminal justice reform, education, voting rights, democracy itself — the manipulated electoral maps in a number of states have prevented real progress in those areas. It’s allowed some legislators to be able to only listen to the extremities of their particular base while leaving the rest of the folks out of those conversations. Here in Georgia, we have a history of egregious voting rights practices. And that has been reflected in the makeup of our state legislature. The Georgia General Assembly. This (redistricting) cycle is going to be unique. This will be the first redistricting cycle to take place in Georgia without the protections of federal requirements, pursuant to Article Five of the Voting Rights Act.
Q. So it’s pretty much giving the ones who will be creating these maps carte blanche. There’s nothing standing in their way?
A. From a federal perspective, not really, and from a state perspective, no. In Georgia, we do not have any significant or substantive statutory or constitutional requirements that govern our redistricting process at all. Now in some states, you’ll see language that mandates that districts are compact or outline certain protections for communities of interest. Those arguments don’t exist in Georgia.
Q. You’ve been involved in a series of informational forums about redistricting. Have they been well-attended?
A. All of the events we had last year have been well-attended.
Q. Are people well-versed in redistricting or are they confused about how it works?
A. People have a general understanding. One thing that’s so unique and interesting about Georgia right now is that we’re in a very special time in history where people are more engaged and in tune than ever before. Just as people were hyper-focused on the elections and protecting the right to vote, redistricting naturally is the next big fight. That is what we have been focusing on and people have been acutely aware of what’s on the line. No pun intended. The interest in just being involved in this process has been amazing. We’re talking about hundreds of people who are so engaged in this conversation. We’re seeing it reflected day after day. We’re seeing it with people reaching out for help with submitting their public testimony. Those are the ways people can make an impact right now.
Q. Are you reaching a political cross-section of people?
A. The majority have probably been progressive although, we don’t discuss people’s individual ideology. We really focused on trying to foster an environment and a discourse surrounding the need for fairness and equity and accessibility in the redistricting process.
Q. Are there any apps to help people understand redistricting?
A. There’s a great tool, Dave’s Redistricting, which allows the public to go in and learn more about how redistricting is done. Dave’s essentially allows people to draw their own maps. It’s a great tool for folks to be able to play around with and get an idea of the nuances involved with creating a statewide congressional map or state legislative maps.
Q. What can be done to ensure fairness in the redistricting process now that the federal rules that would have monitored that process have been removed?
A. The best course of action is, to excuse my French, fight like hell. Fight for a fair, transparent, and accessible process. Fight for people’s input to be a part of the conversation. This is a historically behind-closed-doors process. So fight for this to be a process that allows for sunshine and that people can be a part of and readily engage in.
Q.What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned with regard to telling people about redistricting?
A. Redistricting is not a sexy topic. It’s not something that is discussed around the dinner table every night, unlike some other issues. But as we’ve been having these conversations, doing these events, and engaging people, I have been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in the topic. We can scale down training and not have to spend so much time going over the fundamentals because people get it. That is a direct testament to this very special moment in time that we are in here in the state. It’s a constant reminder to never bet against the results.