Georgia GOP lawmakers draw the lines, political map is election spoils

Georgia Republicans are set to once again control the remapping of the state's political districts after retaining control of both legislative chambers. The remapping process is often controversial and challenged in court, as in 2019 when protesters attended a rally during U.S. Supreme Court hearings in landmark redistricting cases out of North Carolina and Maryland. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

While county election workers were still counting the votes in Georgia, the Republican State Leadership Committee declared victory in the state.

That political action committee’s goal is to elect Republicans to state offices and protect their seats. In Georgia, it spent nearly $3 million to defend Republican seats.

“Georgia Republicans have stopped the liberal onslaught from Stacey Abrams and her allies and protected their majority in the state House,” said Gov. Brian Kemp in a Nov. 4 statement on the committee’s website. “With a Republican trifecta intact, we will continue to deliver results for hardworking Georgians  — protecting people and their paychecks, investing in education and public safety, enhancing access to affordable health care, and keeping our economy growing so that we remain the best state for business.”

The trifecta Kemp referenced is the House, Senate and governor’s office – the three branches of government that wield power over drawing of maps of Georgia’s state legislative and congressional districts.

Democrats poured money into the state ahead of the 2020 election in an attempt to wrest control of the state House from Republicans, with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee spending more than $2.5 million on state house races, according to campaign filings.

Democrats made little progress in terms of flipping seats, but they did give Republicans a run for their money in several close races. Democrat Kyle Rinaudo came 280 votes short of defeating influential north Cobb Republican Rep. Ed Setzler. East Cobb Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper, the House Health and Human Services chair, squeaked out a win against Democratic challenger Luisa Wakeman.

Republicans who survived squeakers this election may see their districts redrawn to include more reliable Republican voters the next time around.

The party in power gets to redraw district maps every 10 years following the results of the U.S. Census. While Republicans are set to wield full control over the map-drawing process next year, Democrats’ strong showing statewide in the presidential election will likely give them pause, said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“Republicans will be well aware that as they look at the political data and the population data, that it’s going to be difficult for them to come up with districts in 2021 that will still work for Republicans, say in the election year 2030, so Republicans may be more aggressive in 2021 trying to carve out Republican districts than they were a decade earlier,” he said.

When politicians draw district lines to benefit a candidate or political party, it’s called gerrymandering, and while the practice is often criticized for diluting citizens’ power over elected officials, both parties do it to get and hold onto power.

In Georgia, the parties’ roles were flipped 20 years ago, with Georgia Democrats redrawing lines after the 2000 Census to try to hang onto their advantage over an ascendant Republican Party, said Kennesaw State University’s director of the School of Government and International Affairs, Kerwin Swint.

“At some point, it’s going to be hard for the Republican majority to keep cobbling together districts at the legislative level and at the U.S. House level to protect all Republicans or maximize the Republicans’ opportunities to win,” he said.

“The Democrats faced this around 2000, the late ’90s into the early 2000s, when the Democratic party in Georgia was still trying to hold on at a time of a lot of Republican growth, and it just just became really hard to draw those districts to where they would keep electing Democrats. Republicans may find themselves in the same situation.”

Battlegrounds

The Constitution requires congressional districts to have equal population, but state legislatures have control over those districts’ boundaries.

As Georgia’s population continues to become more concentrated around metro Atlanta, it is likely the districts surrounding the capital city will shrink while those further away will grow.

When the new congressional district lines are drawn, eyes will focus on the 7th District, which includes parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, where Democratic Congresswoman-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped a seat from Republican control, and the neighboring 6th District, where Democrat U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath fended off Republican Karen Handel and increased her hold on the district in the northern Atlanta suburbs.

“Right now in metro Atlanta, you’ve got the 4th, 5th, 6th and 13th, which are all Democratic districts, and Republicans lost the 7th, so my guess is their top priority will be to try to get it back somehow,” Bullock said.

One way to do that would be to redraw the border to pack more Democrats into McBath’s district, making it safer for her, and more Republicans into Bourdeaux’s, giving Republicans a better shot of winning it back. That plan would keep nine of the state’s 14 congressional districts in Republican hands.

The challenge is that Gwinnett’s population, like the rest of metro Atlanta, is growing fast. It is rapidly approaching one million people, more than a full congressional district, and unless the trends change, voters will likely lean toward supporting Democrats.

“The partisan mapmakers are trying to draw districts not just their party can win in 2022 and 2024, but that they can hold onto through the 2030 election,” Bullock said. “And what we’ve seen in Georgia in each of the last two elections is the districts Republicans drew in 2011 they thought they could hold on to throughout the decade have slipped away from them, and they have that same possibility as they sit down in 2021 and start drawing maps.”

Metro Atlanta’s growing population is likely to have an effect on map drawing in the rest of the state, including in the south Georgia district now represented by U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, which stretches north to Macon.

“The 2nd District is almost certainly going to get bigger,” Bullock said. “That southwest corner of Georgia is not growing to pace with the rest of the state, so you’re going to have to add people in to bring it up to the one person one vote.”

Bishop has been on both sides of redistricting. He won his seat in 1992, after map-makers used data from the 1990 census to redraw the district as majority Black, and he held onto it four years later after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s redistricting unconstitutional and redrew his district to become majority white.

In 2010, Bishop won with the slimmest cushion of his career against Republican state Rep. Mike Keown, 51% to 49%. But just two years later, he easily won re-election, with more than 63% of the vote. The district had been redrawn to include Macon, a Democratic stronghold.

“In 2011, Republicans did a bipartisan swap,” Bullock said. “They ran Bishop into most all of Macon, which boosted his Black percentages, and then they swapped out some south Georgia whites, which they put over in the 8th District, which made the district more Republican.”

‘What do you care about?’

While politicians arguing over imaginary lines on a map might seem like inside baseball, the coming fight will touch every other topic Georgians care about, said Cindy Battles, program coordinator at Common Cause Georgia.

“What do you care about?” she asked. “Do you care about expanded broadband in south Georgia, do you care about health care, do you care about voting rights, do you care about reproductive justice? All of the issues that you care about are impacted by redistricting because redistricting is the way that the powers that be can empower your voice or dilute your voice, depending on the way that they draw these districts, and we know and we see on both sides that they will use redistricting to do that.”

In a 2019 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan redistricting, or redrawing district lines to promote a political party, is not within the purview of federal courts, though federal courts can decide cases about racial gerrymandering, or packing districts to decrease the power of minority voters. But in a country where politics and race often go hand-in-hand, it is often Black people who see their votes diluted by redistricting, said Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia.

Minority voters tend to be either “packed” into one district so their votes are contained, or “cracked,” split up into multiple districts so they carry less weight.

“They’re packing as much population in without giving proper due for more districts, so what we see in places like Gwinnett County, with the amount of population they have — they’re the most diverse county in the southeastern United States, and one of the most populous — and they didn’t actually have any folks on their county commission that were of color, and it had been that way for decades until the recent elections in 2018. They had basically packed all of the minorities into a few districts and then had at-large voting.”

The population shifts in Cobb and Gwinnett counties the past few years created the opportunity for Democrats to make sweeping gains in local offices as well as delivering congressional seats to McBath and Bourdeaux.

Ten states created independent redistricting commissions to draw electoral district maps without political influence. It would require a constitutional amendment to create such a commission in Georgia. Democratic Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta proposed an amendment in 2019, but the measure stalled in committee.