State Senators tee up redistricting map for speedy approval despite critics

By: and - November 5, 2021 1:00 am

Advocates, residents and others filled the room Thursday for a public hearing on a GOP-drawn legislative map. Many of the speakers asked for more time to review the maps before a panel of lawmakers put the map to a vote. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Senate Republicans defended their proposed redistricting map against criticism that it violates federal law at a Thursday Reapportionment and Redistricting committee meeting and ahead of a planned Friday vote.

Dozens of people crowded into a Capitol meeting room to weigh in on the map before the committee considers passing it and it heads for full Senate consideration. Many said the map is unfair to Georgia’s racial and ethnic minorities.

The 2020 Census showed Georgia rapidly growing more diverse – the number of Black Georgians grew by 12.5% in the past decade, Hispanic Georgians increased by 32%, and the Asian-American population shot up by nearly 52%. The proportion of white Georgians fell by 1% during the same time period.

Others urged the senators to delay the vote to give members of the public more time to consider the maps that will determine Georgia’s political boundary lines for the next decade.

Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to postpone a Friday committee meeting set to start just an hour before the downtown parade begins Friday celebrating the Atlanta Braves’ World Series title to give the public more time to review the map.

“We’re going to come here, we’re going to do our work,” said Macon Republican Sen. John Kennedy, who chairs the Senate committee. “We’re going to do it efficiently. We’re going to spend taxpayer dollars efficiently, and we’re going to go home and we’re going to get back, because we’ve got to come back here in January.”

Kennedy said after the Thursday meeting that the committee may still vote on a map Friday. The panel will first hear a presentation from Butler on the Democrats’ proposed map.

Legislators held a series of hearings across the state during the summer, but that was before necessary population data from the U.S. Census Bureau was available, And the Senate Republicans’ map was unveiled Tuesday, the night before the once-a-decade special Legislative session to redraw Georgia’s political boundaries started and just a little more than an hour before the Braves took the field for the series clincher.

David Garcia, policy director for the Georgia Alliance of Latino Elected Officials Impact Fund, accused the senators of creating a map that violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of minority voters.

“The Senate Republican plan unnecessarily packs Georgians of color in the 22 majority-minority districts it proposes,” he said. “The average population of Georgians of color in the 22 majority minority districts is 71.9%. On the other hand, the average white population percentage in the Senate Republican plan’s proposed 34 majority white districts is 64.3%.”

By drawing minority voters into a small number of districts, lawmakers can reduce their statewide impact.

“There are many more examples of how the Senate Republican map fails to adhere to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution, but we are unable to provide a full analysis to the committee because of the lack of opportunities to do so because of the intentionally compressed process whereby the committee plans to move forward on a vote on the plan after a single half day of public comment,” Garcia added.

Republicans bristled at the idea that their maps were unfair to minorities.

Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to postpone a Friday committee meeting to give the public more time to review proposed district maps. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“We’re going to follow the Voting Rights Act,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican and vice chair of the committee. “These maps will not be racially discriminatory, according to section two of the Voting Rights Act and the court decisions interpreting that. … Trust me, these maps will not be racially discriminatory, they will follow the law.”

Kennedy said the committee took pains to ensure minority representation.

“This map has 14 districts that are majority Black (voting age population) districts,” he said. “It has 20 districts that are majority non-white voting age population. So we have six minority opportunity districts in addition to the majority Black districts.”

Kennedy also said the Republican map prioritizes not splitting counties into multiple districts, splitting only 29, down from the 39 split in the last redistricting in 2011.

When asked afterwards about Senate Republicans’ strategy for carving out majority minority districts, he said deference was given to incumbent minority senators and that map-makers followed the advice of legal counsel on what is in line with “current interpretations” of the Voting Rights Act.

“We’ve done the best we can with the best advice we can get to make sure we’re compliant,” Kennedy said.

At least one longtime state senator disagrees. Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat who is Black, sat through the three-hour public hearing Thursday so he could object to the population shuffling that affected the makeup of his district. The GOP plan would slightly shrink the Black population in his district.

Democrats’ map to come Friday

Senate Democrats have produced their own map, which is set to get a hearing Friday ahead of a planned vote, but with the committee controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely to move forward.

The Democrats’ plan is projected to elect 32 Republicans and 24 Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering project. The Republican map would elect 33 Republicans and 23 Democrats. The current balance is 34 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

The Princeton researchers gave the Senate Republican map an F, citing poor partisan fairness and competitiveness. The researchers created 1 million hypothetical Senate maps and found the Republican plan falls outside 99% of them.

Under their planned map, in a hypothetical election in which both parties received 50% of the vote, Republicans would still have an 8.9% advantage, the researchers found.

The Democrats’ Senate map would still give Republicans a 5.4% advantage. Princeton gave their map an A overall, but with Cs for competitiveness and geographic features.

Janet Grant, vice chair of Fair Districts Georgia, a partner of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said there is also room for improvement for minority representation in the Republican Senate map.

“On minority representation, the current state Senate map provides minorities 34 districts in which to elect candidates of their choice, 20 districts in which minorities are the majority and 14 minority influence districts,” Grant said. “That map that we just heard about maintains those 20 minority-minority districts, but it has one less minority-influence district at 13. The Democratic map on the other side provides 22 minority-majority districts and 12 minority-influence districts, so it’s better overall for minority representation.

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Cowsert voiced skepticism about the findings

“This map has 20 majority-minority districts and 14 minority-influence districts – a total of 34 that are intended to benefit and make it possible for minorities to be elected, and the Democratic map says there are 22 minority majority and 12 minority influencing,” he said. “I’m saying it’s 34 one way, 34 the other, both of these two maps, and Princeton doesn’t like either one of them from that standpoint, except they prefer the Democratic plan.”

The Princeton analysts also found the Republican map creates only one competitive district, District 48, represented by Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat. The Democratic plan creates three competitive districts, all represented by Republicans: Cobb County Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton and Ocilla Sen. Tyler Harper. Harper is leaving the Senate to run for agriculture commissioner, and Senators are poised to relocate his district hundreds of miles north to Gwinnett County.

The data shows there could be up to nine competitive districts in Georgia, Grant said.

Cowsert was again unconvinced.

“They’re thinking it’s partisan to reduce the majority by a seat?” he asked, referring to Senate Republicans surrendering one district. “The people drawing the maps could have built 35 or 36 Republican seats if they wanted to be partisan, instead they’ve reduced the number of Republican seats, but Princeton, New Jersey, thinks that’s unfair.”

Cowsert has a point that Senate Republicans could have gone further to protect their majority, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“They’re certainly not pulling out stops to try to maximize their seat-holding, in contrast with the Democrats the last time they drew the state maps, which was 2001,” he said. “It’s interesting to note, the Princeton project predicted that a fair plan would have Republicans giving up from two to six seats in the Senate. If you give up one, you’re pretty close to the outer edge of what the Princeton project thought of as being fair.”

But the GOP is also likely calculating that taking a modest loss early could help them shore up their defenses for the longer battle.

“When you draw these things, you’ve got to think about the map all the way to 2030,” Bullock said.

The once-a-decade process is playing out in the wake of statewide elections where Georgia voters narrowly picked a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in three decades and elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

“If the Census data shows us anything, it is that the current makeup of the Georgia Assembly does not reflect the population of Georgia,” said Cindy Battles, director of policy engagement for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “People of color now make up half the population of this state and therefore they should make up at least half the population of the Georgia Assembly and any map that does not reflect that – it might be legal but it is not ethical.”

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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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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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