Redistricting showdown looms on horizon

Riley Bunch, The Valdosta Daily Times, Ga.

Apr. 28—ATLANTA — On the heels of a bitter election cycle, lawmakers are prepping for another heated battle that will determine political control for the next decade: redistricting.

A process that takes place once every 10 years, state lawmakers are tasked with redrawing legislative districts using the 2020 U.S. Census population data. But the event is famous for its political maneuvering where the majority party often draws new district lines that favor their candidates — a controversial strategy known as partisan gerrymandering.

The U.S. Census Bureau counting process was uprooted by the pandemic, pushing back the timeline for data release to states by months. On Monday, the Bureau released its first broad statistics that will determine the number of congressional seats for each state in the next 10 years.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the South was the fastest growing region in the last decade and saw a 10.2% population increase. Georgia neither gained nor lost a Congressional seat, but the state's population jumped by about 10% from 2010 to 2020, adding about 1 million people.

Macon Republican Sen. John Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, said the big news from the first round of delayed data is that Georgia will keep 14 congressional districts.

"Everybody is wanting to know are they going to gain or lose congressional representation," he told CNHI. "And for Georgia, it looks like our numbers will be for us to maintain the same 14 congressional seats that we have right now."

The Georgia General Assembly will meet in a special session likely in the fall months to begin hashing out the Peach State's new maps to ensure that every district has the same number of constituents despite population changes.

But experts warn that the delay in numbers leaves room for inaccuracy and unfairness — especially in the South which has a history of discriminatory redistricting practices.

"That will potentially create opportunities for shenanigans, for rushing the process and for taking shortcuts in the name of getting maps done in time for the start of the 2022 election cycle," Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said.

Redrawing the map lines won't only create partisan tension, but also imminent inter-party rifts between state lawmakers — particularly in rural areas — if with population loss, legislative seats disappear.

Dr. Charles Bullock III, professor of political science at the University of Georgia and author of "Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America," suspects Georgia's GOP lawmakers will be pitted against each other more this year as rural areas dominated by the party are declining in residents.

"A person who's been your closest friend because you've represented much the same area — if your area is losing population — becomes your, your arch enemy because only one of you is going to survive," he told CNHI.

Who's in control

Last week, House Speaker David Ralston said he didn't expect a special session to tackle redistricting likely until early November.

"When the frost is on the pumpkin probably," he said on "Political Rewind," the Georgia Public Broadcasting show.

Bullock said in a state such as Georgia, where Republicans control the state House of Representatives, state Senate and the governor's office, the party will have ultimate control over the maps that will be used to determine legislative seats for the next 10 years.

"If you get a right you're going to be in control for that decade," he said.

The newly drawn congressional and legislative maps will be used for elections in 2022. With the tightening margins between Democrats and Republicans across the state, Bullock said if the GOP draws maps to protect all of its lawmakers there will still be narrow margins in many races.

"An alternative strategy for Republicans," he said, "would be to take a hard-eyed look at the numbers and the Democratic patterns that are underway and say, 'Can't defend everything we've got, but we think we can come up with a map that we can use to win control into the decade.'"

For rural areas — particularly in South Georgia — that means districts getting larger, Bullock said. And most rural districts migrating toward Atlanta. Like Cuthbert Republican Rep. Gerald Greene's district — House District 151 — already one of the largest statehouse districts will likely get bigger to accommodate its declining population growth.

While the majority party shifts around voters, drawing political lines to maintain its control, on the other side of the aisle, the minority party will struggle to hold onto what it has without enough votes to combat the dire changes.

Not all states rely on elected lawmakers to redraw maps. A handful of states use independent or bipartisan commissions to complete the task which experts say removes the chance of gerrymandering.

Valdosta Democratic Rep. Dexter Sharper said even with bipartisan redistricting committees in Georgia, the outcome will favor the GOP as Democrats lack voting power to stop it.

"Even though the country may feel that Georgia is blue from a national standpoint," he said, "Republicans know that they still have that control of the state and they want to be able to keep that as long as they can."

Democrats are coming off of big congressional wins and eyeing the potential to pick up statewide offices in 2022. But Republicans were successful in state house races, solidifying their hold over what legislation becomes law.

"You could have possibly a Democratic governor, a Democratic lieutenant governor, a Democratic labor commissioner — everything statewide," he said. "But if the Republican Party can still hang on to their majority, then Democrats still won't have the actual voting power that they need overall."

Kennedy, who will lead the process in the Senate, pushed back against the notion that the hyper-partisan divide following the last election and legislative session could bleed into the upcoming redistricting saying that the process "is not an extension of the laws we just passed" it's something lawmakers tackle every decade, regardless.

"I certainly expect that our process is going to be very thoughtful and it's going to be very fair. We're going to make sure that we're legally compliant and sound from a process approach," he said. "... Having said that, of course, it is a political process and folks can have their own opinions about that. But we're going to be making sure that it's done in a transparent way."

'You don't trust anybody'

The 2020 election cycle not only shined light on the tight margins of the fight for control between Democrats and Republicans in Georgia, but also the inter-party clashes between GOP members.

The special election first, marked the split in the GOP when former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins sought the spot of Gov. Brian Kemp-appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Then again the party became even more divided as former President Donald Trump went after Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in his ill-fated quest to overturn the election results.

Redistricting promises to pit same-party lawmakers against each other again.

The data will be used to chart out new political districts and as districts grow and shrink, lawmakers are also up against the possibility their district will change in political demographics, hurting their chance for reelection.

"It's every man, every woman for themselves," Bullock said. "You keep your back to the wall. You don't trust anybody."

On the backdrop of the recently passed and controversial election laws, Republican leadership will likely be faced with the harsh decision of who they want to survive within their party.

"What that means is you're going to have a real battle within the Republican caucus," he added. "If you're telling some of your members, 'sorry, there's no seat for you here on the bus and the bus is leaving.'"

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said Monday that the Census Bureau expects to make state data used for redistricting available no later than Sept. 30, giving a vague timeline on when lawmakers will return to the Gold Dome.

Congressional intervention

Like the last election cycle, experts predict the South — an area also characterized between the overlap of race and politics — will be one of the country's hotspots for redistricting battles.

Li, with the Brennan Center, said the shifting demographics in Southern states — especially growth of diverse voting populations in the suburbs — heightens the chance of partisan gerrymandering under single-party control.

"What is important to understand is that partisan gerrymandering, especially in the South requires targeting of communities of color because there still are not for the most part, that many white Democrats," he said.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia and a number of other states with a history of discrimination were required to get approval from the federal government on redrawing of their maps.

But the 2013 Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder shot down the requirement and, experts say, subsequently opened the flood gates for potential abuses in the redistricting process.

Some are hoping the new Democratic hold in both congressional chambers and the White House will spark the quick passage of the "For the People Act" that includes a number of redistricting reform provisions including banning partisan gerrymandering.

"If Congress could manage to pass the 'For the People Act' in the summer before the August recess," he said. "It would be a game changer for fairer maps — but the window is narrow."