This month, the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.) held its first field hearing in 20 years, creating history by bringing the Senate’s voting rights fight to Georgia — a state that has emerged as ground zero in our nation’s battle to protect the right to vote.
Georgians found ourselves in national headlines earlier this year when the state legislature passed an omnibus voter suppression bill that will — among other things — decrease the number of ballot drop boxes, outlaw offering food or water to voters waiting in line, decrease the amount of time allowed to request an absentee ballot, and put in new, stricter voter ID requirements.
The reaction to SB 202 was swift — within weeks, the MLB had announced it would move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to its passage; hundreds of companies issued statements in opposition.
But there’s something more subversive happening now — we’re in the middle of a redistricting year, meaning all the congressional and state legislative districts will be redrawn in a special legislative session later this year. In Georgia, the state legislature is responsible for drawing district lines. If that sounds like an unimportant or boring part of the legislative process, let me assure you, it’s not.
Redistricting, when done fairly, redraws the boundaries of districts in response to growing, moving, or shrinking populations in different portions of the state. Map-drawers should create districts that preserve communities of interest and allow them to elect officials of their choice.
When redistricting goes wrong — as it has in Georgia before — districts are drawn to maximize the advantage of one political party, sometimes by diluting the influence of a racial or ethnic group, through a process called gerrymandering.
Over the past decade, Georgia’s legislative maps were drawn three times. Most recently, in 2015, two Georgia House districts were redrawn to protect vulnerable incumbents. One of the most important ideals in this country is that voters should be able to choose their representatives in government — elected officials should not be able to change the rules halfway through the decade to keep themselves in office. When legislators tried to do the same thing again in 2017, public outcry from Georgia voters prevented that from happening.
Elected officials who want to gerrymander maps count on a lack of public engagement — they minimize transparency and hope that their voters don’t realize what’s happening before it’s too late to speak out. But when voters have had the opportunity to offer comment and input, it has made a difference.
The redistricting process in Georgia has already begun, and so far we have seen troubling signs that the legislature is not interested in transparency. While the legislature’s redistricting committees have scheduled public hearings and opportunities for public input, they are not sufficient.
Fair maps can only be achieved through a transparent and inclusive redistricting process. As it stands, the current format of public hearings significantly restricts the ability of many Georgians to maximize their voice.
The majority of Georgians reside in the metro Atlanta area — counties that have seen the highest levels of growth. Despite this, opportunities for public engagement have been lacking. There have been no sessions in Cobb, DeKalb or Gwinnett Counties, and only one hearing in Atlanta. Hearings have been all but inaccessible to Georgians because of transportation barriers and to non-native English speakers due to a lack of translation services.
Given that Census data won’t be released until next month, there are no specific proposals for the public to respond to during these hearings, and there has been no information provided to the public regarding the opportunities for public input once proposed maps have been drawn.
Beyond that, there’s uncertainty about how the public input will be formally recognized or considered by the redistricting committees at all.
If the committees fail to take public input into account, or simply deny the public the opportunity to provide feedback at all, we could wind up with maps that effectively disenfranchise large swaths of voters in the state.
To fight back, we must demand better from our elected officials, and we must show up.
Legislators on the redistricting committees must read public testimony into the record and consider it when drawing proposed maps, the committees must provide language translation services, they must ensure hearings are accessible through public transportation and when Census data is released and maps are proposed, the committees must provide opportunities for public comment on the maps.
Georgians need to participate in the hearings and submit written testimony — we must create a record to let them know that we expect nothing less than transparency and fair maps.
The stakes are extraordinarily high, and we have a short window to fight for political opportunity and fair representation for the next decade.
Theron Johnson is the Georgia State Director for All On The Line, the grassroots campaign of the National Redistricting Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Before joining All On The Line, Theron held leadership roles with federal, state, and local campaigns as well as stints in the office of an Atlanta City Council member and the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus.
Theron earned a B.A. in Political Science at Albany State University and is a 2013 graduate of the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute.