As controversy swirls over the comprehensive new voting law that drastically alters Georgia’s election system, another battle with equally profound implications looms on the horizon: redistricting.
In the coming months, state lawmakers will begin redrawing the lines of Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process that will help determine control of the state government and its policies for at least the next 10 years.
The once-a-decade redistricting process will play out in a particularly charged atmosphere this time, coming on the heels of high-profile presidential and U.S. Senate elections with narrow margins, false claims of “voter fraud” and court challenges to restrictive new voting laws.
“Redistricting, in a lot of ways, shapes who holds power for the next 10 years,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia professor and author of the book Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America. “It’s an opportunity for map drawers to make their majorities safe and to discriminate against certain groups that are growing in power.”
The biggest factor hanging over the map drawing process this year will be Georgia’s shifting demographics. Since 2010, the state’s population has grown by nearly 1 million people to more than 10.7 million in 2020, according to estimates from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.
While final numbers for redistricting won’t be available until the U.S. Census Bureau releases its official figures later this year, it is possible to determine where the biggest changes have occurred.
The Georgia News Lab and GPB News compiled two sets of numbers. The first is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year population data broken down by state legislative and congressional districts from 2012, the year of the first election conducted on the maps drawn in 2011. The second set is the same survey from 2019, the most recent year that contains the same congressional, state House and Senate-level data as the 2012 records.
From 2012 to 2019, the average size of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts has swelled by about 49,000 people to 743,000; the 56 state Senate districts have grown by about 12,300 people to 185,000; and Georgia’s 180 state House districts each contain about 4,000 additional people, or almost 58,000 on average.
In that period, some districts in Atlanta’s northern exurbs have grown by more than 25%, many in Republican strongholds. The greatest growth was in House District 22 represented by Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock), which grew by 27% and is now estimated to include nearly 70,000 Georgians. The estimated average size of a House district in 2019 was just under 58,000 people. Rep. Todd Jones (R-South Forsyth) in District 25, has the largest House district, with an estimated 72,000 residents.
To account for such growth, lawmakers will have to likely have to shrink the boundaries of these districts during redistricting in order to reduce the numbers.
On the Senate side, the three largest districts represent more than 200,000 Georgians each in fast-growing areas of Cherokee, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, and are held by Republican Sens. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming), Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and Clint Dixon (R-Buford). The estimated average size of a Senate district in 2019 was about 186,000 people.
While these lawmakers will see their jurisdictions shrink after the lines are rejiggered, preliminary estimates also show a hollowing out of population in rural Georgia, especially in areas held by Democrats.
Some of the districts with the lowest number of Georgians are represented by longtime lawmakers such as dean of the state House Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) and Minority Leader James Beverly (D-Macon). Rep. Winifred Dukes (D-Albany) has seen his district’s estimated population dip by nearly a tenth from 2012 to 2019, and nearly one in six state House districts have fewer residents now than they did a decade ago, estimates show.
Senate districts represented by Sens. David Lucas (D-Macon), Ed Harbison (D-Columbus) and Freddie Powell Sims (D-Dawson) have each lost an estimated 10,000 or more people in that time.
Boundaries for these and other thinning districts will have to be expanded during redistricting to draw in more people.
These patterns are particularly significant given who gets to draw the maps: In Georgia and 33 other states, redistricting of state seats is carried out by the state legislature. In 39 states, including Georgia, the legislature is responsible for drawing congressional district lines.
Democrats have worked since the last round of redistricting in 2011 to grow their ranks in hopes of winning control of at least one chamber of the General Assembly to gain influence in the process.
But Republicans maintained a lock on both the House and the Senate, and the redistricting powers that come with it. Having enacted legislation that voting rights groups say will negatively affect turnout in nonwhite communities, Republicans are now positioned to influence how much weight those votes will carry.
The stakes could not be higher, said Bullock of the University of Georgia.
“How districts are drawn goes a long way towards determining which party will win them … not just for a single election but for a decade,” Bullock said. “For two-year terms, we’re talking about five elections and that requires those drawing the districts be able to see over the next hilltop and can easily be dashed if there is a change in the population.”
‘Packing’ and ‘cracking’
States must redraw their political maps and create voting districts based on census data that, in accordance with federal law, are nearly equal in population and do not discriminate on the basis of race.
Responsibility for drawing the new districts varies by state. Some have assigned the task to nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions in an effort to limit political influence.
But in Georgia, redistricting remains an explicitly partisan process. State House and Senate committees, led by the majority party, draw up the maps — with help from the Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office. The full House and Senate then vote on those maps before sending them to the governor for final approval.
Maps can be — and often are — drawn for political advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering. By creating boundaries that either pack the opposing party’s voters into a handful of districts or dispersing them across many districts, the party that controls the process can help ensure safer seats for its candidates and maintain overall control of state government, even with fewer total voters.
These “packing” and “cracking” tactics have been used by both Republicans and Democrats over the years.
In 2001, Democrats still maintained control over all three branches of state government but the ranks of Republicans were growing quickly. To hold off the red wave, Democrats developed heavily gerrymandered maps.
Current House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) later characterized the Democrats’ challenge at the time as an “attempt to hang on to their majorities in a gravity-defying way.”
Republicans successfully challenged the maps in court, forcing the districts to be redrawn in a less partisan manner.
In 2005, the year after the court decision, the GOP took control of the state government for the first time.
When Republicans had their first opportunity to oversee the redistricting process in 2011, they used that authority to draw favorable maps, although Bullock noted that the GOP did not “push the envelope” in the same way Democrats did in 2001.
“Georgia Republicans were in good shape,” Bullock said. “If you look at the maps, they’re not the extraordinary shapes that Democrats resorted [to] in 2001 when they were desperately trying to hold onto power.”
Following the 2011 redistricting, voting rights groups began a long, concerted voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign that, along with favorable demographic shifts, helped Democrats make substantial gains in many districts despite Republican-drawn maps. However, in the end it was not enough to break the Republican lock on the redistricting process.
Preclearance and partisan gerrymandering
While there are some federal and state guardrails around how maps are drawn, these constraints have eroded since the redistricting in 2011.
For nearly half a century, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required that Georgia and 15 other states with a history of voting discrimination receive approval from the U.S. Justice Department before making any change that would affect voting, including redrawing district maps. The Supreme Court struck down that requirement in the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, ruling that it was excessive and no longer necessary.
The lengthy preclearance process deterred legislatures from drawing overtly gerrymandered districts, and without this legal check, some experts suggest there may be a greater temptation to do so.
“As a result of the Shelby County decision, legislators could begin to dismantle districts where people of color are beginning to elect candidates in places like Atlanta where we’ve seen multiracial coalitions come together,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and author of a report outlining the challenges of the upcoming round of redistricting.
Li’s report also suggests that with the preclearance requirement removed, legislatures may have an incentive to drag out the time it takes to draw maps in order to reduce the amount of time opponents have for litigation before an election. Under the preclearance rule, legislatures had an incentive to complete maps quickly to allow time for approval from the Justice Department.
Bullock noted that the burden of proof has also shifted under the new system. During preclearance, maps would pass the legislature and be signed by the governor after which the state would have to prove to the Justice Department that the maps were not discriminatory. Now it will be up to whoever is challenging the maps to prove to courts they are discriminatory.
Another significant shift since the last round of redistricting involves the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision that federal courts do not have jurisdiction over claims of partisan gerrymandering. As a result of the 5-4 ruling, maps can only be challenged on the basis of unfair political districts in state court, where there is little legal precedent, potentially emboldening partisan mapmakers.
With fewer legal roadmaps in state courts for challenging partisan gerrymandering, in states such as Georgia, where voters are often polarized along racial lines, legislators may attempt to “excuse racially discriminatory maps on the basis of politics,” Li said.
“They may say, ‘We weren’t discriminating against Black voters, we were discriminating against Democrats and they just so happened to be Black voters,’” Li said. “I suspect that is something we’ll see more.”
There is currently legislation pending in Congress that would address the issue of gerrymandering. In 2019, the U.S. House passed the “For the People Act” which provided a sweeping package of voting protections and ban on gerrymandering. It also includes a recommitment to the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act. Although the bill had stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, there is now movement among newly empowered Democrats to push the bill through, spurred by restrictive voting legislation in Georgia and other states.
While the Supreme Court decisions curtail some provisions of the Voting Rights Act, others remain in force. For example, states are still required to draw districts that are not racially discriminatory or that “improperly dilute minorities’ voting power.”
While this ensures that minority populations in the state will have representation through districts where they are the majority voting block, the provision could have the effect of “packing” minorities into a small number of districts, diluting their overall power and limiting the number of Democrats elected.
With Republicans in control over redistricting, Democrats will have little say in the process.
“At the margins there might be certain individual Democrats who might be able to cut a deal or something like that, but they’re going to be excluded,” Bullock said.
How Georgia’s districts are changing
The redistricting of Georgia’s rapidly changing population will take place this year under the dual challenges of a heated political environment and the effects of a global public health emergency. Due to complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration’s efforts to alter the count process, the Census Bureau has pushed back the date by which it will deliver new redistricting data to states to Sept. 30, a six-month delay from the original March 31 deadline.
Nevertheless, yearly population estimates produced by the Census Bureau provide a picture of how Georgia has changed demographically and how new districts may be drawn. While the state’s population has grown by about a million over the past decade, Georgia will likely not gain or lose any of its 14 congressional seats.
After the 2020 election, those seats are split between eight Republicans and six Democrats.
Among the most closely watched regions during the upcoming redistricting will be U.S. House Districts 6 and 7, which cover Atlanta’s northern suburbs and exurbs.
In the 7th District, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux narrowly defeated Repulbican Rich McCormick for an open seat in November, marking the only U.S. House seat in Georgia that flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2020. In the 6th District, Democrat Lucy McBath held on to the seat she flipped in 2018.
Census estimates show population growth has exploded in both districts and racial diversity has increased, with large increases in Asian American and Hispanic populations. These population changes largely benefit Democrats, whose voting base is composed of a multiracial coalition.
As diversity increases in northern Atlanta, an area that was once deep red, Republicans will have a more difficult time carving districts that protect GOP incumbents in competitive districts.
Impact in the state House
Demographic shifts will also be a major factor in the redistricting of state House districts. House districts in Atlanta’s suburbs, covering areas such as Smyrna, Marietta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, have experienced some of the largest growth in the state in the past 10 years and have seen especially large Asian American and Hispanic population growth.
One example is District 50, which covers Johns Creek in Fulton County and was once held comfortably by Republican and current Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger but flipped in 2018 after a win by state Rep. Angelika Kausche (D-Johns Creek).
The district has seen an explosion in Asian American population growth over the past decade. Census estimates show the district added more than 5,000 Asian Americans in that time, the third-largest increase of Asian Americans of any district in the state. That demographic jumped from 26% to 32% of the district’s total population.
The surrounding districts mimic this trend, and Democrats have translated that into electoral success. Twelve-term Republican incumbent state Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), who represents east Marietta, is now almost completely surrounded by districts that have flipped Democratic in the past few years. Cooper herself narrowly won reelection in 2020.
Bullock says Republicans will face challenges drawing maps that can account for the changes and help their candidates win seats in these districts.
In reconfiguring the state’s congressional districts, Bullock said Republicans could potentially add to their majority by packing Democratic voters from the 7th District into the 6th, pushing Bourdeaux’s district north into Republican territory. Democratic voters currently in the 7th District would be replaced by Republicans in northern Georgia.
In the state House, Bullock predicts that Republicans may have to give up a number of their own incumbents in competitive northern Atlanta districts in order to solidify GOP control elsewhere.
Over the next decade, Bullock thinks Republicans will be able to protect only a slim majority in the House, 95 to 98 of the 180 seats.
“It’s not gonna be a pleasant conversation to have, whether they look simply to maximize their seats right now or think longer term and try to come up with a plan that would allow them to retain control of the chamber for a decade,” Bullock said.
Some lawmakers involved in those conversations will have a personal stake in the outcome. Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Chairwoman Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee), is one of the few remaining Republicans representing suburban Atlanta, along with Reps. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) and Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula). Setzler and Efstration are committee members who won reelection by only a few percentage points.
The maps the House and Senate committees draw will have long-term consequences.
“If Republicans are sufficiently foresighted, they may be able to develop maps that allow them to win majorities in these chambers in the state legislature and to hold on to the eight seats and pick up a seat in the congressional delegation,” Bullock said. “They’ll be able to do this, not just for 2022 but for the next decade.”
This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.