The Georgia General Assembly will reconvene less than two weeks from now in a special session to take on the constitutionally mandated legislative task of redistricting. Like the U.S. Census, and as a result of it, this process occurs every 10 years when states redraw their congressional and legislative maps to reflect population and other demographic changes.
Districts are supposed to be divided in roughly equal numbers, so that the residents of one have roughly the same legislative voting power as those of another. (Consider Georgia’s old County Unit System, under which the most populous counties each had six “unit” votes, the least populous had two and all those in between had four. A voter in tiny Echols County thus had literally hundreds of times the legislative clout of a voter in downtown Atlanta.)
It can be a complicated process. It’s also, of course, an inherently political one.
For the first time since Reconstruction, that process is in the hands of a majority Republican legislature. After a century and a half of Democratic political control, it’s to be expected that the General Assembly’s ruling party would be itching to flex its collective muscle. That’s how the game is played.
Since the 2000 Census, Georgia’s population has grown by more than 18 percent; the state now has a population fast approaching 10 million. However one feels about population growth and regardless of partisan considerations, another congressional district enhances the state’s representation in Washington.
The regional implications are a bit more ambiguous. The explosive growth, of course, is in north Georgia, specifically the Atlanta area. So Georgia will have not only a metro-majority General Assembly (it already does) but likely a metro-dominated congressional delegation as well. The growth in chronically poor south Georgia, particularly around the lower Chattahoochee corridor, has lagged far behind.
Because a state can’t be stretched geographically, of course, a new district has to be carved out from the existing ones. That’s where the political maneuvering comes in. And it’s fraught with peril – not just for minority party incumbents, but sometimes for the majority as well.
Case in point: The Savannah Morning News suggested that Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow could be carved out of his heavily Democratic portion of Savannah, with all of that city then falling into Republican Jack Kingston’s territory. That would leave Barrow facing a tough re-election fight in a Republican-leaning district – and add a lot more Democrats to Kingston’s.
But maybe the most instructive object lesson about politically greedy legislative majorities is from the last regular reapportionment process in 2001. The Democrats who controlled the legislature were widely criticized for being too heavy-handed in redistricting to enhance their own political dominance.
They no longer have it.