Athens Residents Want Fair Political Districts

By Blake Aued | Flagpole | July 14, 2021

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It is unlikely to happen as long as Republicans run Georgia, but Athens residents made it very clear to the state legislators who will draw new political maps this fall that they want Athens-Clarke County made whole again.

“We believe Athens-Clarke County, a known Democratic stronghold, has been purposefully gerrymandered to dilute our voice and will,” Angela Greene, a Winterville resident and member of the political group Indivisible Georgia District 10, told the House and Senate redistricting committees at a public hearing in Athens last week as they prepare for the once-a-decade process.

Republicans have been slicing and dicing Athens since they took power in 2004. After the 2000 Census—showing that the GOP doesn’t have a monopoly on gerrymandering—Democrats drew the 12th Congressional District to stretch from Athens to Augusta to Savannah. Democrat John Barrow won that seat, only to see Republicans remove his hometown of Athens and place it in the largely rural and conservative 10th District, where most of it remains. Barrow opted to move rather than face certain defeat in the 10th; later, Republicans took Savannah out of the 12th as well, sealing Barrow’s fate.

Before 2006, all of Clarke County was within one swingy state Senate district. But when it looked as if a Democrat would win the seat, Republicans split the county in two. Now Athens is lumped in with conservative Oconee, Walton, Barrow, Jackson, Madison and Oglethorpe counties in two safe Republican districts.

The GOP struck again after the 2010 Census. Formerly Democratic Rep. Doug McKillip switched parties, and to protect him, Republicans redrew his Athens district to include parts of Oconee, Barrow and Jackson. This left Athens with two Republican districts and one Democratic. Despite being about 70% Democratic, six out of Athens’ seven representatives in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. are Republicans.

As a result, Athens residents lack representation, said Zachary Perry, a recent UGA law school graduate who ran against Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) last year. “Local representatives often don’t show up because they don’t need to,” Perry said. “They don’t need the votes of Athens.”

But because lawmakers in the majority party can draw their own districts, they have little motivation to make those districts competitive. Instead, they seek to protect themselves while leaving as few seats as possible for the opposition. They are loath to give up that power, and unlike some states that have created independent redistricting commissions, it’s nearly impossible for citizens to put such a measure on the ballot in Georgia. 

As the committee chairs, Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon) and Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee), said in a video presented at the hearing, principles of redistricting include keeping “communities of interest” together and avoiding dividing local jurisdictions when possible. Clearly those principles don’t apply to Athens.

“I moved here three years ago thinking I was moving to a progressive community, only to discover that it was split so many ways, there was no way in H-E-L-L to get anything done,” attendee Johnny Cusimano said. But he gave the game away when he pointed out that Cowsert’s district makes him impossible to beat. Why would any politician want to make things easier for their opponent?

Still, that didn’t stop speakers from asking for fairly drawn, competitive districts. “My hope is that the legislature will care more about democratizing power than partisan victories or political careers,” said local progressive activist Erin Stacer.

Though weakened by recent Supreme Court rulings, the Voting Rights Act provides some protection for minority communities to ensure that they’re not “packed” into one unnatural district or “cracked” by splitting them up and diluting their votes. According to Georgia ACLU political director Chris Bruce, the number of voting-age people of color in metro Athens has risen 18% since the last census, while the white voting-age population has grown 6%. “These demographics must result in maps that reflect the diversity of the greater Athens area,” he said.

Bruce’s figures, though, are estimates. Because of the pandemic, results of the 2020 Census, which would ordinarily have been released last spring, won’t be available until this fall. Only when the new data is in hand will lawmakers be able to draw the maps, because only then will they know for sure which areas have grown and by how much. “The truth is, we don’t know when the special session will be,” Kennedy told the crowd of about 150 at Athens Tech. But it must be done before office-seekers qualify in March.

Whenever it’s done, and however the maps look, a lawsuit is all but certain. Legislators have already been told to save any correspondence on redistricting in anticipation of discovery. And a coalition of groups that includes Stacey Abrams’ Fair Count, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Common Cause, the Urban League and others is laying the groundwork by criticizing the lack of transparency in the process.

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