You probably won’t see nearly as many TV attack ads or pieces of junk mail, but the redistricting process that kicked off Tuesday night could be as big a political fight as any Georgia election.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Lawmakers began the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political boundaries with a virtual joint hearing of the state House and Senate committees in charge of redistricting and reapportionment. Ten more meetings are scheduled in cities across the state between June 28 and July 29, with another virtual meeting scheduled for July 30. Residents will also be able to share their feedback on the state Legislature’s website.

The timeline for this year’s redistricting was thrown out of whack by the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the U.S. Census from collecting and releasing the population data states need to draw equal districts for the state Legislature and Congress based on Georgia’s 10.7 million residents. The state is expecting to receive partial data at the end of August, but full population data is not set to arrive until Sept. 30, six months after the original March 31 deadline.

After the data comes in, lawmakers will likely hold a special session to vote on proposed maps, but they’ll want to hurry before qualifying for 2022 elections begins in the spring, when potential candidates will need to know whether they still live in the district they hope to represent.

That hurry could mean there will not be time to hold more public hearings once the data comes in and lawmakers have draft maps to look at, said Suwanee Republican Rep. Bonnie Rich, chair of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee.

“We don’t know yet because we haven’t gotten the data yet, and there’s not necessarily a firm deadline,” she said. “Our main goal is to meet the deadline of having the special session so that we can get the maps drawn, and we just don’t know what kind of timeframe we’re going to be bumping up against.”

Activist groups like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Count have argued against the rush since lawmakers announced Tuesday’s hearing the week prior, saying a hastened timeline would be bad for Georgians.

“Because of the time and timing of residency requirements in Georgia and the springtime qualifying, it may appear that the process needs to be rushed, but that would be a mistake because too much is at stake,” said Fair Count CEO Rebecca DeHart in a press briefing before Tuesday’s hearing.

“It is crucial to a fair and functioning democracy that the process not cut out public participation, either inadvertently or on purpose by using the guise of a rushed timeline to pass maps that have not been studied, evaluated or commented on by the very people its lines separate.”

Speakers ask for careful process to redraw lines

Speakers at the hearing largely agreed. About 60 people signed up to speak, according to the committee, but after several people did not show up in the Zoom chat or passed on their turn, only about 20 people delivered comments, largely urging members of the committee to show bipartisanship in the process and not to divide communities, especially minority ones.

Bendash Pandey is a high schooler from Johns Creek.

“Our community is predominantly people of color and immigrants like me who share similar stories,” he said. “So when Asian-American hate crimes skyrocketed by 145% in the past year, it was not only harrowing for those in my community, but also a stark reminder of the lack of representation that we have. This has left our community largely apathetic and disillusioned to politics, so much so that less than half of eligible voters in our community cast their ballots in elections before 2020.”

The city of Johns Creek is majority white, but it is home to a significantly higher percentage of Asians than the rest of the state with more than 23 percent in the north Fulton town’s population.

Michelle Zuluaga of the nonprofit Latino Community Fund Georgia said maps that reflect Georgia’s diversity benefit minority communities.

“When we have accurate representations, our communities get access to resources that many take for granted, such as language accessibility, access to the polls, public transportation and places for community members to gather and connect as one,” she said. “This is why we stand with many when we say that we want maps that will unite our state and not divide our communities.”

Redrawing political boundaries is always a political process, but this year could be especially charged. Republicans are sore after President Donald Trump narrowly lost the state in November and Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff flipped Georgia and the Senate to Democratic control the next January.

It’s also a racially-tinged process — mapmakers have often used minority neighborhoods as proxies for Democratic ones, and residents have seen their communities divided to better serve one party or the other, and this redistricting will be the first in decades in which Georgia is not bound by a preclearance requirement from the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Republican rule means lines may benefit incumbents

This time around, Republicans are in control of the state Legislature, and they’re likely to draw the lines to benefit their party and attempt to hold onto that control for at least the next Census in 10 years, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“When it comes to the state Legislative districts, because there are a number of marginal districts in the Atlanta suburbs, the Republicans may decide that their best strategy is a conservative strategy, and by conservative I mean that they actually give Democrats some seats,” he said. “They may say we think we can come up with a map which would allow us to protect 95, 97, some number of seats, and keep the House for a decade.”

Manipulating districts for an advantage is not just a Republican trick, Bullock said. Democrats tried their best to do the same when they were in charge back in 2001.

“If you were a Democrat, they at least showed you what it was going to be. If you were a Republican, you didn’t know until they unveiled it at the very end what your district would look like. So my hunch is that this won’t be the least transparent we’ve ever had. How transparent it will be, we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

One thing is for sure, he added, it will be a contentious process that will probably involve litigation after the last border line is drawn.

“It’s pretty much standard practice that the party which loses the Legislature goes to court,” he said. “They have nothing to lose. The court’s not going to give them a worse deal, and they might come out ahead.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...

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