Citizens gathered July 26, 2021, to speak to the legislative redistricting panel in Brunswick. Credit: Jacqueline GaNun/The Current

As elected officials redraw the boundaries of legislative districts in Georgia that will hold for the next 10 years, residents of Coastal Georgia are pleading to have their voices heard. In a public comment meeting Monday, residents of Glynn, Chatham and other counties urged state legislators for an equitable and transparent redistricting process that takes local communities into account.

Nearly 40 people spoke at the meeting Monday, July 26, most repeating the refrains of equity and transparency. Residents spoke about keeping homogenous communities together and asked state representatives for a candid redrawing process and more opportunities for public input after maps are drafted. 

“We want fairness in this process. We also want a procurement process as well, where we get written reports of how maps will be drawn and the data that will be used,” Aunna Dennis said. Dennis is the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to increase public participation in democracy.

True coastal representation?

One question about representation that arose: What about Savannah? Georgia’s Chatham County, its fifth most populous, is not on the list of locations the state Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee is visiting. 

Savannah’s population and that of its surrounding counties is diverse in both economic and demographic terms. From the port to downtown to the residents of the more rural Bryan and Liberty counties, there are unique concerns about the balance of political power, concerns that some said during the meeting were crucial for map-drawers to hear and understand. 

Former mayor of Savannah Edna Jackson was one of the people who made the 70-mile drive to Brunswick on Monday. 

“When I looked at your map on this paper, there is one little dot down in the southern part of the state of Georgia. We want to know, why can’t we have a session in the city of Savannah and Chatham County?” Jackson asked. “We feel that we are not getting an opportunity to express what we’re really interested in.”

Jackson said not giving the residents of Chatham and surrounding counties — which number more than 300,000 — an opportunity to speak at a local meeting “represents a way of disenfranchising people, and that is what we do not need to happen in the community.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson issued an open invitation for the committee to visit the Hostess City to listen to resident concerns about redistricting, especially after maps are drafted. 

“Many of the people I represent have problems traveling within Chatham County, much less being able to get down here to Glynn County,” Johnson said. “You deserve the opportunity to hear their voices, and they have deserved the opportunity to see your faces.”

The next public input meetings are in Columbus and Macon, and there is a virtual meeting Friday, where legislators will broadcast from the state capitol. 

The importance of redistricting

Redistricting happens only once every 10 years after the national census and plays a role in determining who keeps — or takes — political power. As people move around the state, the districts change to accommodate population change. This year, Georgia is only redistricting, not reapportioning — the district lines are changing, but the number of seats the state holds in Congress will remain the same. 

Georgia’s redistricting process this year is taking place in a fraught political climate in a state with changing demographics and party affiliations. In the 2020 elections, the state’s electoral votes went to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992, bolstered by blue regions in Atlanta and Savannah. 

On Monday, speakers urged elected officials to take people, not political power, into account when redrawing the maps. “Over the past 20 years, Georgia’s redistricting process has been subject to near-constant gerrymandering,” a report from Fair Districts GA and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project found. State officials, when defining political districts, can “crack” cities — split areas that lean heavily towards one party into two separate districts in order to dilute the support for that party. 

Current Georgia House of Representatives districts for southeast Georgia.

Lines can also be drawn along racial lines, a particularly salient issue in Glynn County. The county is nearly 27% Black and the city of Brunswick is 55% Black, according to census data

Partisan districting affects not only who wins elections, but who runs in them in the first place. “Potential candidates know that they can’t win in a gerrymandered district,” said Nina Altschiller, president of the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia. 

Monday’s meeting was the sixth in a series of town hall meetings hosted by the Georgia House and Senate Reapportionment Committees. The meetings are meant to gather public input about Georgia’s communities prior to drawing the new maps. 

“In each of these meetings and hearings, we want to hear from you. No matter what your thoughts are, or from what part of the state you come, we want you to tell us about your ideas about the process,” said state Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon). Kennedy is the chairman of the state Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee and hosts the meetings jointly with state Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee), the chair of the state House Commission on Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment. 

Officials must consider many factors when drawing districts, including equalizing population, ensuring “communities of interest,” avoiding major changes to existing legislative representation and keeping local government jurisdictions whole. Districts must also comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These reasons are why districts cannot be drawn as perfect squares across the state, Kennedy explained in a video shown before the public comment period. 

State legislators are waiting on U.S. Census Bureau data, which is late due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before they can actually begin the redistricting process. The town hall meetings will provide information about what residents of the Peach State are looking for in their new district lines.

“The million-dollar question — the one that everybody wants to know the answer to — is when will the special session be? And at this point we still don’t know,” Rich said. She said legislators can’t do very much until they get final data, which they don’t expect to receive from the Census Bureau until the end of September. 

Past and future maps

“The current map was drawn based on gerrymandering,” Nathan Russo said bluntly of Glynn County during his public comment. Russo, who has lived on St. Simons Island for more than 30 years, recommended Georgia follow methods that other states use, such as utilizing a bipartisan or independent committee to draw the maps. 

Multiple speakers advocated for the use of computer-generated maps from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to “understand the characteristics of Georgia’s natural demographics, political preferences and minority representation,” as Cuffy Sullivan put it. Sullivan spoke as the communications committee chair for Fair Districts GA, a nonpartisan nonprofit urging a clear redistricting process.

Districting fairly “also suggests accountability, because if your voting record is positive enough to the majority of constituents, you’ll get reelected, regardless of party,” said Brett Hulme, who represented the Southeastern Carpenters Regional Council. Hulme said competition works in business and should also be the norm in political battles. 

“The majority of working people are busy working, and they don’t find out until the effects directly hit ’em between the eyes,” Hulme said. 

While most speakers pressed for a change in district boundaries, some advocated for the lines to remain the same. 

“Many of the messages that you get on a daily basis might be a little complex. We have a simple one — we would like to preserve our district boundaries as currently drawn,” said Patrick Duncan, chairman of the Glynn County GOP. “They serve us well.”

Glynn County’s population has grown by an estimated 7.1% from 2010 to 2019, according to existing U.S. Census Bureau data. The city of Brunswick grew by 6.3%. 

Keeping like-minded communities together was also top of mind for many residents. Glynn County is split roughly in half into two state House districts. Chatham County has six state House districts. While a few residents maintained that they like the districts the way they are, the majority who spoke at the meeting advocated for fewer districts that would not split communities as dramatically. 

After the 2010 census, a political district line was drawn right down the center of Renea Camper’s street in Liberty County, splitting the county into two state House districts (much like Glynn County). “So, I am very interested in seeing a redistricting process that is non-biased, that is fair,” said Camper, the chair of the Liberty County Democratic Committee. 

More than voting rights

Represented among the meeting participants were multiple advocacy and social justice groups. Along with Fair Districts and the League of Women Voters, people from Migrant Equity Southeast, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the Saint Philip Monumental African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Asian American Advocacy Fund spoke, using their time to talk about not just voting issues but social justice causes. 

“The question is not if the maps are going to change. The question is how the maps are going to change, and we ask that they’re changed fairly because too many voters here in Georgia had been redlined, packed and cracked into disenfranchisement and poverty,” Vasu Abhiraman, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Georgia, said. 

Daniela Rodriguez advocated for immigrant communities in South Georgia. Born and raised in Brunswick, Rodriguez now lives in Savannah. She recalled growing up on a street without streetlights, where it flooded when it rained, and where she didn’t understand why those things happened simply because her family was poor. 

Rodriguez called for a reform of the electoral process to provide more infrastructure and resources to people that need them. 

“Brunswick is very diverse, and its diversity should be seen as something beautiful, not as a threat, as you engage in the redistricting process,” Rodriguez said. “I hope my story serves as a reminder that immigrants have a voice.”

Requests for more input on drafts

Residents pleaded for more opportunities for public input on districts after the maps are drafted. Van Johnson, Savannah’s mayor, emphasized that the committee was invited to Chatham County and would be particularly welcome for residents to give input after the first drafts of the maps are devised. 

“As we near the end of this public hearing series, I am concerned that this will be the extent of the committee’s attempts at taking public input on how our communities will be governed for the next decade,” said Djemanesh Aneteneh, a redistricting coordinator for Fair Count (the nonprofit founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams). “Will there be more opportunities for public input, particularly when district maps are being drafted and available for review?”

Cuffy Sullivan, from Fair Districts, echoed Aneteneh’s sentiment. “Today I also sincerely ask that you release proposed maps in time for meaningful public review and feedback prior to adoption,” Sullivan said.

“You know, once is good but two, three times would be better,” Vincent Williams, a Brunswick commissioner, said in an interview about the public input meetings. “If we can get good representation in Atlanta, we’ll be able to showcase the east coast.”

Jacqueline is a reporting intern at The Current.