Advocates see Democrat gains as Kemp calls special redistricting session Nov. 3

By: - September 24, 2021 1:00 am

Lawmakers will return to the Georgia Capitol in November to hash out the maps that will guide the state’s elections for the next decade. The Republican-controlled legislature could cede some seats to Democrats, but likely not enough to endanger their control of the state House and Senate. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

An unbiased redrawing of Georgia’s congressional and legislative maps would likely put more state House and Senate seats in Democratic hands, but not enough to give them a majority in the state, according to an analysis by Fair Districts Georgia and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

“The partisan gap has very clearly narrowed, we’re much closer to a swing state across all three maps, and secondly, we see opportunities for increased minority representation, not only for Black voters, which is the traditional way of looking at it, but also we see the growth of Hispanics and Asians and others,” said Fair Districts Georgia Chair Ken Lawler, who previously ran in the Democratic primary for a state House seat.

“We think there’s definitely more opportunities for them to be involved in influencing election results across the state. We’re expecting the district maps to reveal that many more districts are majority-minority districts, but through combinations of minorities, which we call coalitions.”

Georgians who follow the decennial exercise in dividing maps and power won’t need to wait long to see what form the political sausage-making takes.

Lawmakers are now set to gather at the Capitol for a special session Nov. 3 to fulfill their once-a-decade duty of updating district lines to fit with the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, Gov. Brian Kemp announced late Thursday.

Kemp had previously called for officials to also consider legislation aimed at lowering the crime rate in parts of the state, but the document his office released announcing the session makes no mention of that.

Instead, the focus will be on drawing the maps which Kemp will need to approve before the 2022 election cycle begins with candidate qualifications next spring.

The process this year will be on a tighter timeline than normal after COVID-19 delayed Census-takers in 2020. Typically, the state would have begun the process by the spring.

That time crunch, along with the prospect of an upcoming election cycle that will shape Georgia politics from the Senate to the governor’s mansion to both chambers of the state Legislature, likely means much more attention will be paid to the session, including from groups like Fair Districts.

“I think that the opportunity to continue to gerrymander is certainly there, the incentive is there. I’m not going to speculate what exact number we’re going to see,” Lawler said. “I wish I could be more positive that there’s not going to be gerrymandering, we’ll just have to see what they choose to do.”

To discourage lawmakers from building gerrymandered districts, Fair Districts and Princeton teamed up to use mapping software to create more than 1 million maps per legislative chamber and measured the partisan balance, number of competitive districts and amount of minority representation to create a range of numbers that would be expected from a fair process. The ranges they came up with occur in 98% of each of the 1 million maps, and a map that falls outside would be an outlier that indicates possible gerrymandering, the groups said.

Redistricting is always a partisan affair, with the party in charge tipping the scales to help their chances of hanging on to power for the next ten years.

This time around, Georgia Republicans have their hands on the pen, and a fair redistricting process would likely see them hold onto power, but Democrats can expect to potentially fill a few more seats.

In Congress, the new benchmarks would not significantly shift the current balance of power. A fair map would likely result in eight or nine Republicans and five or six Democrats representing Georgia in Washington — currently there are eight Republicans and six Democrats serving in Congress there.

If Republicans are hoping to pick up one of those Democratic seats, the spotlight will likely be on the suburban Atlanta districts belonging to Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux.

In the state House, Democrats could expect to pick up between five and eight seats if the benchmarks are close to reality, shifting the balance of power from 103-76 to between 92-88 and 99-81. That would result in between nine and 22 competitive House districts, the mapmakers say. The 2011 map resulted in 10 competitive districts.

In the state Senate, a so-called fair map would see the Democrats pick up between two and six seats, increasing their margin from 34-22 to anywhere between 32-24 and 28-28.

But while an even split in the Senate would certainly make for some interesting votes, GOP mapmakers are exceedingly unlikely to cede that much ground.

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Fair Districts and Princeton went back and ran their analysis on the redistricting following the 2010 Census, when the mapmaking was also controlled by Republicans. They found the actual results were on the fringes of the benchmarks for that year with the advantages going to the GOP.

Lawler said he would like to see maps more in line with the middle of the projected benchmarks.

“I’m not going to speculate as to where it turns out, what I’ll say is that if we see a map that’s off the tail end of that distribution, we’re going to say that’s not fair,” he said. “We’d like to see maps that are drawn closer to the center of the distribution. So the most obvious choice from our statistics would be, say,
(a margin of) plus four, five, six for Republicans, and therefore minus four to six for the Democrats.”

Republicans will look to protect their majorities, but they are not likely to draw outlandishly unfair maps to scrape out every advantage, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Being too greedy could backfire on Republicans’ image, Bullock said, and it would be wiser to play the long game.

“Thirty-two, maybe 31, I think would be what we’re likely to see in the Senate, but clearly they’re not going to come up with a plan that’s 28-28. If they did, they’ve badly miscalculated,” he said. “Maybe the 2030 election will end up with something like that, but that’s not what they’re going to start out with in 2022.”

Republicans could make the calculation that by taking some moderate losses in the next election, they can strengthen enough districts to hold onto a slim but safe majority until the next redistricting process in 2030. Because of that, Fair Districts’ benchmarks might not be too far from what the final map produces, Bullock said.

“Who knows 10 years from now what we’re going to see, but dialing back from their current holdings of 103 in the House and 34 in the Senate to something in the range of the benchmarks, that’s kind of what I’m expecting to happen,” he said. “They’re going to sit down and look and see what the current voting patterns are, what the trends have been over the last two, three elections, and say, ‘We think we can beef up some of these districts on the northside of Atlanta and make them so that they will stay Republican for 10 years and give the Democrats some of the ones to the south.”

Political parties have historically used race as a proxy for party affiliation when drawing maps, but redrawing districts to dilute the power of protected racial minorities is now illegal.

Fair Districts and Princeton say fairly drawn maps will create at least 48 majority Black districts in the state House, at least 16 in the state Senate and at least four in Congress.

“When we talk about minority districts, we’re very careful to always say ‘at least,’ as we do not want to be prescriptive (and limiting),’ said Cuffy Sullivan, communications committee chair for Fair Districts Georgia. “Also, for example, if the state redistricting committees were truly devoted to encouraging and increasing minority-majority districts, they could even find more!”

According to data from the 2020 Census, 52 current Georgia House districts have adult populations that are majority Black. For the Senate, that number is 13, and for congressional districts, it is four.

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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.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. 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. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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