Georgia’s redistricting roadshow spurs calls for local Balkanization

By: - July 6, 2021 3:00 am

Lawmakers listen to testimony from members of the public at a June 15 redistricting hearing in Atlanta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

When Georgia lawmakers sit down to draw the state’s new Congressional and legislative borders this fall, they should remember the Latino population in the north of the state, says Jose Morales of Whitfield County.

“The carpet industry alone employs over 30,000 people in Whitfield County, and the majority of those are migrant workers, specifically Latino workers,” Morales said. “I ask that the committee take that into consideration, the diversity, the uniqueness of our area, when redrawing the district lines. We’re a close-knit community, and we ask that the committee keep our community together.”

Many Latinos have moved to the area over the last two decades and found work in the carpet industry that makes up the economic backbone of the region. Whitfield County’s population is more than 36% Hispanic or Latino, according to census data, compared with just under 10% for the state as a whole.

Members of the state House and Senate committees in charge of redistricting and reapportionment will be tasked with considering their needs as well as countless other groups around the state who want a say in their representation for the next decade.

Redistricting is always a high-stakes political game, but the pressure is higher this time around after pandemic delays in the 2020 U.S. Census have pushed back the timeframe to at least the fall for states to receive the data they will need to create districts with equal populations.

When that data comes, lawmakers will have a clearer picture of what they will have to work with, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. For groups like Latinos in Whitfield County, what the numbers show could make all the difference.

“What the data’s going to show is, are those communities in those counties big enough that they could constitute a majority of, say, a state House district, and if they could, then under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, there might be some obligation for the state to indeed draw that district,” Bullock said.

Lawmakers have held public hearings on redistricting in Atlanta, Cumming and Dalton in recent weeks to launch an 11-city listening tour of Georgia.

This week, they will host meetings in Athens on Tuesday and Martinez on Wednesday. A full list of future public hearings can be found on the state Legislature website, and Georgians who don’t make it to the microphone can also submit written comments.

Some transparency advocates have criticized the hearings, saying there are not enough, they were not well-advertised and they are being held before the state has the census data, preventing members of the public from submitting their own maps.

Others say the meetings need to be more accessible to Georgians who are not proficient in English by advertising hearings in other languages and providing translations.

“We want to be active participants of this process,” said America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton. “We think hearings are not enough. We need you to provide us with the information and access to data as well as the drafts of maps, also to offer resources for language access, so for us to participate in evaluating the districting proposals, more widely disseminated town halls that provide opportunities for meaningful participation.”

Redrawing Lines

In Georgia, redrawing district lines is the responsibility of state lawmakers, and the party in charge has the incentive to try to arrange districts to give themselves the biggest political advantage over the next decade.

Republicans in the state Legislature looking to help their party retake the U.S. House will likely be eyeing the territories of Democratic Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, both of whom represent metro Atlanta districts. Bourdeaux narrowly flipped her district, which includes portions of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, in 2020. Gwinnett and other Atlanta suburbs were at the forefront of Georgia’s blue shift in 2020, but Forsyth still leans toward Republican candidates.

One way for Republicans to help their chances would involve moving some Democratic areas of Bourdeaux’s district into McBath’s, making McBath’s less competitive but giving a conservative a better chance of defeating Bourdeaux.

That sounds good to Faith Pescatore of Suwanee, a Gwinnett County city where the population has grown by more than 36% since 2010, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Department. Bourdeaux also calls Suwanee home.

“We all are concerned about north Gwinnett because we here in our precinct want and deserve conservative representation,” Pescatore said at the Cumming meeting. “Shifting us to another district could dilute our strength as conservatives, and we need a home. We want representation that shares our values, and we really honestly don’t have that right now.”

Other Georgians say they’re happy with their representation as it is and asked lawmakers not to mess with their borders.

Suburban Cherokee County north of Atlanta saw its population grow by more than 20% between 2010 and 2019, making it one of the top 10 counties in the state for growth, according to census estimates. The entire county is within the domain of Republican Rep. Barry Loudermilk’s 11th Congressional District, but some worry population growth could cause the once-rural county to be carved up.

“Any attempt to unnecessarily gerrymander our county to elevate or accommodate districts outside of the 11th district is disingenuous on your part,” Cherokee County Republican Party Vice Chair Camille Brown told lawmakers at the Dalton hearing. “I understand that Georgia is growing, we are becoming more diverse, but your goal should be to keep communities together and based on equality. Cherokee County residents are common in our beliefs, our community involvement, and we love our community.”

Slicing counties up can be detrimental for local governments, said Jesse Vaughn, a member of the Gordon County Development Authority and the joint Floyd-Gordon county Development Authority Board.

“When their county commission or city council people have to do work with the Georgia Department of Transportation, they don’t have one, they have two different DOT board members they’ve got to work with and deal with and satisfy and make understand their request, so please, as best you can, keep counties intact to help your local government officials,” he said in Dalton.

But lawmakers may decide the advantage of sending more Georgia Republicans to Congress outweighs the concerns of a local party.

“It’s possible, you can draw what are called bacon strip districts, which can be long and narrow,” Bullock said. “One way in which Republicans might try to do in Lucy McBath’s or Carolyn Bourdeaux’s (districts) would be to have a very long and narrow district which might go as far as to Cherokee. If you’re going to be looking for Republican voters, that’s a good place to look.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene

Several speakers at the Dalton hearing asked lawmakers to keep them in the district of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the only politician to inspire such dedication at the meetings so far.

“We have a fighter in our congressional district that is willing to stand up for us, and we definitely want to be with her in her fight to help us,” said Ray Blankenship, a Catoosa County gun rights advocate. “I’m speaking for around 3,000 people right now in Catoosa County. We really request that you keep Catoosa County in the 14th district.”

Terry Lister, a single mother, told lawmakers in Dalton she voted for Greene because “she fights for the same moral principles, she has the same integrity that I raise my children with.”

To her supporters, she’s a hero who stands up to what they see as radical leftists and impotent establishment Republicans, but to Democrats and more mainstream conservatives, she is little more than a headache.

The freshman congresswoman drew national notoriety in recent months when she compared mask-wearing rules to the Holocaust, and trafficked in conspiracy theories that helped spark the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Her partisan stunts have inspired some to call for state legislators to gerrymander her out of her district — a gambit that ignores the fact that Greene moved across the state to run for office in her district.

Greene is also protected by the position of her district in Georgia’s northwest corner, Bullock said.

“You can’t go north to Tennessee and you can’t go west to Alabama, so it’s harder to dramatically change the composition of that district than it would be one which was not abutting part of the state line,” he said.

And even if lawmakers do try to change the boundaries of her district, most of north Georgia is strongly Republican.

“You could move in lots of different ways, bringing a lot of new voters, but they are probably all going to be Republicans being brought in,” he said. “Some of them might be more moderate, find her unacceptable and therefore vote against her in a primary, but she would be hard to do away with unless you really get some kind of extraordinary district where you are running well into the Democratic parts of Atlanta, and Republicans don’t want to do that, to create an opportunity for a Democrat to defeat her.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.