The redistricting season officially opens in Georgia in November, the day after Georgians go to the polls to cast ballots in some 1,600 municipal elections.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a proclamation late Thursday to convene a special session on Nov. 3 on redistricting. The session also will deal with other policy and procedural issues.

The process is expected to be arduous — if not politically divisive. The Republican-led legislature will set about redrawing maps in a state that’s decidedly less white, more ethnically diverse and more likely to live in a Craftsman bungalow in Atlanta’s Inman Park than a rural brick ranch in Albany. 

Georgia’s redistricting process will be about two months behind when the General Assembly convenes for the Nov. 3 special session. Normally map-drawing would be going on now but the pandemic and delayed data collection for the census postponed the process. Census data is crucial to cartographers’ ability to get an accurate picture of constituents and political boundaries. 

Other states such as Colorado, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska have already started their redistricting process.

Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and Florida are considered by some redistricting experts to be the “path to victory” for Republicans looking to regain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans could yield as many as 13 seats in these four states. They only need five to regain the House.

Neither Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan nor Sen. John F. Kennedy were available for comment. Kennedy chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, which heard from Georgians this summer about their redistricting concerns.

Political observers in Georgia will be watching the upcoming redistricting process with interest — and concern.

University of Georgia Professor Charles Bullock has followed the machinations of Georgia politics through nine governors and more than two dozen legislative sessions. And now he’s settling in for his fifth redistricting session. He has followed the process since 1970. 

“This is the most consequential one for Georgia since 2000,” the veteran political observer told Atlanta Civic Circle. ’There’s a lot more at stake.”

“In 1970, 1980, 1990 nobody questioned that the Democrats would lose control. They had all of the control. They were going to draw the maps,” Bullock, UGA’s distinguished university professor of Public and International Affairs, recalled.

But in 2000, the tables began turning for the Democrats, Bullock said. 

“The Democrats were in control but it was eroding and they were desperate. They were more desperate than Republicans are today.”

Even though they’re still firmly in control, Republicans are “experiencing loss of support” Bullock said as evidenced by last year’s presidential election and this year’s Senate races.

“They might see themselves losing control of the statehouse. I wouldn’t expect that at all in 2022 or 2024,” Bullock said. “But if the state continues to grow rapidly, if it continues to grow with ethnically diverse people, with people moving in from out of state, then some of the districts which get drawn as Republican districts could slip away. They could flip and become Democratic.”

Consequently, Republicans have a lot riding on this year’s redistricting process, Bullock said. 

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Here are a few issues that may come up during this session:

Gerrymandering. Redistricting and voting rights experts say map manipulation could mar the process. Emmet Bondurant, a nationally-renowned redistricting expert, gave a stinging indictment of Georgia’s upcoming redistricting session.

“We’ll see the most gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts in the state’s history,” the Atlanta attorney told Atlanta Civic Circle. “You’re not exactly appealing to reason or morality or good faith. Constitution principles. Democratic Principles. All of those are out of the window. It’s  going to be a repeat of the past in which electoral outcomes are rigged in advance in gerrymandering the districts.”

The Sixth and Seventh Districts. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux’s victory in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District last fall gave Democrats six districts in the state. The Republicans have eight.

“Republicans will try to come up with a plan that will give them a ninth district,” Bullock said. “They may try to take back both but that might be a bit of a stretch. But I suspect it’ll be relatively easy for them to come up with a plan which would get one of those two districts back in their fold.”

Math problems. Georgia’s demographic changes and population shifts will create a lot of adding and subtracting in some parts of the state during this redistricting cycle.  Southwest Georgia, for instance, “is going to get a lot larger because it’s “substantially under-populated,” Bullock said. Meanwhile, the seventh district, which is mostly Gwinnett County and parts of Forsyth County, is substantially overpopulated.

“So at a minimum, it’s going to share a lot of people,” Bullock predicts. “What Republicans might do is take out some of [Bourdeaux’s] Democratic support in Gwinnett and maybe even push her further into Forsyth or maybe even into Hall [County] or someplace like that. Her district is so the most overpopulated in the state so some of the people in her district will have to be removed.” 

THE LONG VIEW

While the redistricting process is expected to take about two weeks, lawmakers will be angling for a strategy that extends control for the party in power.

Consider this scenario from Bullock:

Let’s say there’s a district that’s drawn on the border between Republicans and blue Democrats on the northside of Atlanta.

“You might grow it so that it’s 55 percent Republican today,” he said, “But if you assume the population trends we’ve seen continue, then you would know as a Republican that’s not going to still be a Republican district in 2026 or 2028. So you might decide to give Democrats some of these districts they’ve come close to winning in 2018 and 2020. Pull the Republicans that you can out of those districts, and make the districts just north of them 65 percent Republican or something like that.” Republicans, he says, may figure that “may be enough of an insurance policy to enable Republicans to hold on to the district for the next five elections.”

In any case, the party in control — in this case, Republicans — are in it for the long haul.

“As Republicans go about fashioning their plans, they’re not just concerned about what’s going to happen in 2022 or 2024,” Bullock said. “They’re going to be trying to draw a district that they think will allow them to maintain control of the State House and State Senate through the 2030 election.”

Still confused about gerrymandering? Check out this two-minute video by Fair Districts GA.

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