Some of metro Atlanta’s top lawmakers gathered with constituents this week to discuss the arrival of Georgia’s long-awaited redistricting season.
The pandemic and delays in census data already has this redistricting season running months behind schedule. Tech-savvy map-drawers and lawmakers will set about reshaping Georgia’s political landscape next month. It promises to be a session filled with twists, turns, pitfalls and acrimony. Once the political lines are set for the next decade, some lawmakers may find themselves drawn out of their districts and unable to run. Others will be pitted against peers in their own party in a political gambit where only one can emerge the winner.
It’s expected to be a redistricting season unlike any other.
“Pop some popcorn for some of the drama that we expect in the next few weeks,” State Rep. Betsy Holland (District 54) told those gathered Tuesday night, in-person and online, for a town hall on redistricting.
Holland moderated the hour-long event that included seven of her Atlanta Delegation colleagues, all Democrats. They talked about the upcoming session and political tactics people should be aware of, such as gerrymandering, which is used to create an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating the boundaries in electoral districts. Both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia use the tactic.
State Sen. Nan Orrock, who is heading into her fourth redistricting next month, said this season is unlike any she’s experienced. It kicked off late last month with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and state Sen. John F. Kennedy blindsiding voting rights activists and politicians with a proposed congressional map.
“That’s never been done before in my time [in the Georgia legislature], where the lieutenant governor issues a map before we get into session,” Orrock said. “Unusual things are happening all across America, and certainly here in Georgia, that one did not used to see.”
Orrock said the map appears to zoom in on Georgia’s newest members of Congress: Representatives Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux. She said the map is drawn in a way that protects one and puts the other in jeopardy. McBath represents Georgia’s 6th District while Bourdeaux is in the 7th District.
“And that’s a tale that will continue to unwind,” Orrock said.
But this remapping season holds other possible problems, the delegates said.
The late start, due to the pandemic and delayed census data, could harm some lawmakers in next year’s midterms.
“If you want to run for a House or Senate seat, you have to show that you’ve lived in that district for one year prior to that year’s election year,” Holland said. “Because the districts will be redrawn once we’ve already passed that deadline, no one has the chance to move, potentially, to stay in their district if they’re drawn out of their districts. That’s why this is so worrisome for a lot of folks.”
Some audience members wanted to know if they’d be able to personally watch as maps are being drawn.
“The truth is these maps are being drawn in a small room where nobody is,” state Rep. Stacey Evans told the crowd. “They’re being drawn with the use of computers. There is sophisticated software that allows you to carve these districts up. Now, when the district lines are debated in a committee room, you can [watch]. “
Viewers will be able to follow those redistricting committee proceedings next month. The session starts Nov. 3 and is expected to last until around Thanksgiving.
Several delegates said they’d like to see Georgia join about a dozen other states in allowing an independent redistricting commission to draw its political maps, instead of lawmakers.
“What that would do is strip the politics out so that elected officials don’t get to choose their voters. Voters get to choose their elected officials,” state Rep. Erick Allen said.
State Rep. Becky Evans suggested people track the process using benchmarks created by credible organizations familiar with the redistricting process. Fair Districts Ga, for example, drew one million maps to create benchmarks that result in fair and transparent maps.
She detailed those benchmarks:
14 U.S. Congressional Districts: Look for five to six Democratic seats, up to three competitive seats and eight to nine Republican seats.
56 state Senate Districts: Look for 24 to 28 Democratic seats, one to seven competitive seats and 28 to 32 Republican seats.
180 state House Districts: Look for 81 to 88 Democratic seats, nine to 22 competitive seats and 92 to 99 Republican seats.
“These are some of the benchmarks I’ll be looking at and I encourage you all to look at that too to see that there’s fair and transparent districts,” Evans said.
November’s redistricting session will focus on redrawing the boundaries for the state’s U.S. Congressional, state house and state senate districts. Redistricting of city council and local school boards starts in January.
“There have been major population changes and shifts within the city of Atlanta,” state Sen. Jen Jordan said. “The city council districts, as we will draw them in January, are going to look a lot different than they do right now.”