ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers are kicking off the process to redraw congressional, legislative and other electoral districts, setting up a showdown between Republicans seeking to retain power and Democrats reaching toward a majority.
The joint House and Senate redistricting committees met Tuesday for an online hearing to collect testimony about what citizens want to see in new district lines. Nine more hearings will be held in person around the state between June 28 and July 29, with a second online hearing set for July 30.
House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bonnie Rich, a Suwanee Republican, said lawmakers on Tuesday sought to listen.
“Our purpose is to hear, primarily Georgians and members of the public, our constituents,” Rich said.
Many advocates voiced doubts about lawmakers’ openness to meaningful public input, calling for increased transparency. They also complained about short notice for the hearing and that the locations of future hearings haven’t yet been announced.
“What we’ve been seeing today looks like little more than a dog and pony show where the sort of theater of hearings takes place but not the substantive opportunity to participate,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union
State and local governments must redraw lines for congressional, legislative and other electoral districts once every 10 years following the U.S. Census to balance population. The process helps determine which party will hold power for the following decade. Georgia’s current maps were drawn to sharply favor Republicans.
The state’s overall population rose nearly 10% to 10.7 million people over the decade, but more detailed Census results are expected to show uneven growth, with most new residents concentrated in Atlanta and along the coast. Many rural areas may have lost population.
The ideal U.S. House district will have 765,136 residents, while state Senate districts will average 191,284 and state House districts will average 59,511 people.
Republicans drew Georgia’s congressional map in 2010 with an eye to putting 10 seats into their party’s hands. However, Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018 wrested away the 6th District, while Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux won the 7th District last year, leaving Republicans with an 8-6 majority of congressional seats. The GOP is widely expected to try to redraw at least one of those seats to make it more favorable to a Republican challenger.
Gerrymandering also affects the General Assembly. Athens-Clarke County is split among three state House districts, only one of which is represented by a Democrat, even though Joe Biden carried 70% of the votes there and the county overall is large enough for two entire House districts.
Thanks to increasingly sophisticated map-drawing technology, critics say incumbents can often choose their voters, instead of voters choosing officials. Some Georgia Democrats have pushed for an independent commission to redraw districts, but those proposals have won no support from Republicans leaders. Top GOP figures such as House Speaker David Ralston say Democrats used redistricting to maximize their advantage when they controlled the General Assembly.
This will be the first time in decades that Georgia won’t have to seek federal approval for district line changes after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that required preclearance for a number of mostly southern jurisdictions. However, people can still sue under the federal law after lawmakers approve new lines to allege they are racially discriminatory.
Georgia House redistricting chair Bonnie Rich, R- Suwanee, speaks, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, at the first of a series of redistricting hearings as Senate Majority Leader John Kennedy, R-Macon, looks on at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers are starting work on the once-a-decade process of redrawing electoral district lines. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)