Georgia’s population is more diverse and more concentrated around cities than ever before, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.
More Georgians 18 and older told census takers in 2020 that they identify as more than one race – 5.9%, compared with 1.5% in 2010. The numbers of Black, Latino and Asian Georgians increased, while the proportion of Georgians identifying as only white dropped from 59.7% in 2010 to 51.9% in the latest data.
“Diversity has arrived in Georgia in a huge way,” said Ken Lawler, chair of the non-partisan anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts Georgia. “We’re diverse, and drawing maps to reflect that diversity is going to be the challenge.”
During the last decade, Georgia’s population grew from about 9.6 million to more than 10.7 million, and most of those new Georgia residents are living in a large metropolitan area such as Savannah, Augusta or Atlanta, whose surrounding counties welcomed the most new residents in the last 10 years. Most of rural south Georgia lost population or stayed about the same.
The maps released by the U.S. Census Bureau will shape policy decisions in Georgia communities for the next decade and inform how billions of federal dollars will be distributed. More immediately, the data will be used to draw new state and congressional maps in a special Legislative session later this year. The date of that session is yet to be announced, and lawmakers are on a rushed schedule this year because of delays to the 2020 census caused by COVID-19.
“Usually we get these data right at the end of the census years, we would have gotten it back in late December, and we would then have a special session or in late August or early September,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “Here we are getting it in August, and we really can’t wait eight or nine months to have a session because qualifying will be coming along in March, so that’s going to require that work that would be spread out over quite a few months be shortened.”
Lawmakers are likely already busy breaking down the census numbers to start planning the maps, Bullock added.
“The data that comes from the Census Bureau at the census block level, and that’s not really what’s of the most interest to the political figures that are drawing the districts,” Bullock said. “They’re interested in whether the district they draw is going to be a Democratic or Republican district or a toss-up district. So what you have to do is to aggregate up the census block data until you get to the precinct level because precincts are the lowest level at which you get electoral data, and so they will be building up from the census block level to the precinct level, and then merging the census data with the political data.”
Because congressional and legislative districts must have equal populations, that will mean districts in south Georgia will likely get bigger on the map, while metro Atlanta’s districts will continue to shrink.
“The districts are all going to look very, very different. That’s true for the congressional, and it’s true for the House and Senate,” Lawler said. “The maps are going to look quite different, quite new, I think I’ll be surprised if they resemble the old maps at all.”
As the majority in Georgia’s Legislature, Republicans will hold the pencil for this year’s map-drawing and will likely work to create maps that will help them hang on to their advantage.
“I think there are some positive sides, we’re seeing some more politically mixed populations in suburban and exurban areas,” said Alex Tausanovitch, director of Campaign Finance and Electoral Reform at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. “That makes it a little bit more challenging to draw an optimal gerrymander.”
Bullock agreed — the Atlanta suburbs are likely to remain at the center of the swing state’s political battles for the foreseeable future.
“You could see districts with some red precincts and some blue precincts. How do you do that?” Bullock said. “Do you draw bacon strips where the southern end of the district might be Democratic and you move it up north to make it Republican? Can you make it Republican enough to work for a decade? Or are these trends which we’ve seen taking place over the last couple of decades going to continue, that would mean increased diversity, especially moving further and further out from Atlanta?”
“Unfortunately, there are also other trends that are making it easier to gerrymander, like the availability of better gerrymandering software,” Tausanovitch added. “So I still think we have very gerrymandered districts in Georgia. It’s a state where the vote is very obviously very evenly split, nearly 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans, and yet, you’ve consistently had about eight Republicans to six Democrats in the House.”
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is not under the jurisdiction of federal courts, though racial gerrymandering is still illegal.
“Because the Supreme Court has recently said that there’s no constitutional restriction on partisan gerrymandering, I think what you’re going to see is gerrymandering in Georgia that is heavily based on party, but that has that as racial impacts,” Tausanovitch said. “So there are going to be districts that disadvantage Black and African American Georgians, but they’re going to be disadvantaged because of their political party rather than their race because that’s now the more viable legal route to limit political power.”
That could mean Democrats will have a more difficult time challenging the eventual maps if they plan on alleging racial bias.
“It’s certainly possible, but it is very difficult to win a case under the Voting Rights Act when the existing districts for people of a certain race are maintained and where there’s no proof of intent,” Tausanovitch said. “So it’d be, I think, very difficult to challenge the districts that are drawn as a partisan gerrymander on the basis that they disadvantaged African Americans.”
Georgia’s shifting population statistics will also affect groups like Fair Districts as they attempt to put out their own maps, Lawler said.
“Traditionally, Georgia’s districts were drawn pretty much, from a minority point of view, the Legislature looked at Black population versus others,” he said. “It was kind of a Black whte story. It’s not that anymore. Do you look at minorities as a group, do you look at Blacks versus Hispanic? How do you make sense of all that, is the challenge. So I can’t say we have any answers yet, but I think the problem has become a little bit more complex, and it’s important to take those complexities into account given the magnitude of the changes that we’re seeing.”
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