Re-Mapping Georgia’s Political Power
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Re-Mapping Georgia’s Political Power

Redistricting has legislators “literally fighting for the political lives” and will affect Georgia voters for at least a decade.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Skyline view of Atlanta, the capital city of the southern U.S. state of Georgia and the state's largest city. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Skyline view of Atlanta, the capital city of the southern U.S. state of Georgia and the state's largest city. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

If you want to be left alone at a party, start a conversation about redistricting.

There are few topics less sexy than the process of drawing maps for congressional and state legislature districts, as well as county commissions and school boards. And few are more consequential.

Redistricting will be “the major political issue in Georgia this fall,” said Matt Weiss, legislative affairs chair and board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, during a recent JCRC briefing. The Jewish community has a stake in the process.

Rep. Mike Wilensky said that he will seek re-election no matter the possible changes to his district.

“We’re down to only one Jewish state representative and how the lines are drawn can affect who runs and in what districts, and based on how they’re drawn they may change where the Jewish populations are located,” said Rep. Mike Wilensky, the Dunwoody Democrat who represents state House district 79 and is the only Jewish member of the General Assembly.

Two metro Atlanta congressional districts will receive national attention. Both are held by Democrats: Lucy McBath in the 6th and Carolyn Bourdeaux in the 7th. These two seats could impact control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In the current Congress, Democrats hold 220 seats, Republicans 212, and three are vacant.

“In particular, the 6th District houses a substantial portion of Georgia’s Jewish community, including areas such as East Cobb, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and North Fulton. I would expect both districts to change substantially under the new maps,” said Weiss, who also serves as deputy general counsel of the Democratic Party of Georgia. In answering the AJT’s questions, Weiss emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the JCRC or the party.

The state of Georgia is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by elected officials from 14 congressional districts. // Photo by Georgia Legislative and Congressional Office

[The local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition declined to comment for this story.]

Also of interest to the Jewish community will be Georgia State Senate District 6, which includes parts of Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Vinings, and Smyrna. Republican-controlled redistricting in 2011 helped Hunter Hill defeat incumbent Democrat Doug Stoner. Democrat Jan Jordan flipped the seat back in a 2017 special election. Jordan is now running for attorney general. “That seat currently leans Democrat, but could easily be modified to incorporate more Republican voters,” Weiss said.

The decennial census is the foundation of the redistricting process. The 2020 count pegged Georgia at slightly more than 10.71 million residents, an increase of 1 million from the 2010 count. There are 435 members of the U.S. House, 14 from Georgia. Even with the population increase, Georgia did not gain another seat. The state is also divided into 56 state Senate districts and 180 House districts.

Redistricting will be “the major political issue in Georgia this fall,” Matt Weiss said.

Georgia requires that legislature districts be compact, contiguous, and that “communities of interest” be maintained, to the extent possible.

Federal law requires that congressional and legislature districts have roughly equal populations and not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. The state has determined that congressional districts should have 765,136 residents; state Senate districts, 191,284; and state House districts, 59,511.

Republicans control redistricting, thanks to majorities in the state Senate (34 to 22 for Democrats) and House (103 to 77). Democrats held sway for more than a century, until Republicans gained the upper hand going into the 2010 redistricting cycle.

“There’s a substantial amount at stake with redistricting this cycle, as Republicans attempt to preserve legislative majorities that have shrunk in recent years,” Weiss said. “Much like the Democrats, who were similarly positioned 20 years ago, I would expect the Republican leadership in the General Assembly to take steps to attempt to shore up their majorities by packing Democratic voters into districts currently held by Democratic legislators, particularly in the northern part of Atlanta and its suburbs, where a substantial portion of Georgia’s Jewish community resides.”

Maps drawn by specially-appointed state House and Senate committees will go to the full House and Senate for approval, and then to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. There is no deadline, but the expectation is that congressional and legislative maps will be finished this fall, with the legislature taking up county commission and school board maps when it reconvenes in January 2022. In the end, lawsuits over the maps are possible.

Georgia has a high percentage of legislature races that, in effect, are determined by one party’s primary. “When we have races that are competitive at the general election level, the people that are elected are focused more on the broader state issues, like transportation, education, and infrastructure, instead of more political party issues,” Wilensky said.

Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent told the JCRC briefing that there “are areas and counties that are so heavily partisan to one party that a partisan district is unavoidable,” citing as examples Democrats in DeKalb County and Republicans in sections of north Georgia.

Demographic shifts have created “a very changed landscape” in Georgia, said State Senator Elena Parent.

Demographics also play a role. Georgia is now 51.9 percent white, down from 59.7 percent in 2010. An increasingly Atlanta-centric population will shift political power toward the metro area and away from middle and south Georgia. Then there are the counties, such as Gwinnett, which have experienced sizable growth in their Hispanic and Asian populations.

Georgia’s maps no longer require approval by the U.S. Justice Department. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the portion of the Voting Rights Act that required pre-clearance in states with a history of discrimination against minorities. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2019 that federal courts have no power to intervene in claims of deliberately partisan redistricting, a practice often referred to as “gerrymandering.” Though bizarrely shaped districts are scrutinized, even those with relatively neat boundaries can be the result of gerrymandering.

Other redistricting buzz words include:

Cracking, when one party dilutes the strength of another by spreading its supporters across multiple districts.

Packing, when one party dilutes the strength of another by packing a majority of its votes into a single district.

Stacking, when low-income, less-educated minority voters are grouped with higher-income, more-educated white voters, who traditionally are more likely to vote.

The population of Wilensky’s northwest DeKalb County district has grown beyond the number assigned to balance districts statewide, so District 79 may shrink.

“I have no control over the lines. I will be able to give my opinion. No matter where they put me, I believe I strongly represent this area of our state and will pursue re-election no matter where they put me,” he said.

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