Three Athens-Clarke County commissioners’ refusal to vote for proposed new commission districts raises the threat that Republicans in the state legislature will scrap a locally drawn map and instead draw their own, potentially spelling doom for some of ACC’s more progressive commissioners.
“Our local delegation, which is made up of our state representatives and state senators, they… want a unanimous vote on it before they present it to the legislature,” Manager Blaine Williams told the commission. “It could go a number of ways if there’s not a unanimous vote. The state could draw it themselves.”
Facing a time crunch because the pandemic put the 2020 Census behind schedule, ACC could not start work on the constitutionally required new map until October, and so drew one that made minimal changes to bring the population of each within plus or minus 5%, a generally accepted standard for redistricting. That map was submitted for technical review to the state reapportionment office last month, but they said the differences in population among districts was still too large.
“It was a surprise to us, a surprise that cropped up on Dec. 8,” Chief Data Officer Joseph D’Angelo said in response to a question from Commissioner Carol Myers about whether other counties were subjected to this new, stricter standard.
The ACC Geospatial Information Office made some tweaks to the map to bring the disparity down to 1-2%. Still, only a few thousand voters would be affected. “This is the most balanced map we’ve ever had,” D’Angelo said. “We have a deviation of about 125 people. This really, really, is a great representation of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle.”
Other factors that go into redistricting include keeping minority communities intact and similar neighborhoods together, compactness and respecting natural boundaries like roads and rivers. But they can’t all be obeyed while keeping populations equal—the county isn’t square, nor is the population evenly distributed, as Williams pointed out. Nipping in one place requires tucking somewhere else.
Commissioner Ovita Thornton made a motion to approve the map, then argued against it. Thornton said her constituents told her there wasn’t enough opportunity for public input, so she would vote against it. However, she wound up abstaining.
“Even a single no vote is the equivalent of the majority of us voting no,” Commissioner Jesse Houle warned colleagues. The options, as Commissioner Tim Denson laid it out, were to pass the locally drawn map unanimously or have zero input into whatever Republicans draw.
“They play dirty,” Commissioner Melissa Link said of the GOP. “They obviously have very little concern about the needs and wants of the community, and they have little concern about voting rights and a truly democratic government in the state of Georgia.”
Commissioner Russell Edwards said he’s heard from constituents who want the Republican-controlled delegation to draw the map so that they can pit two progressives, Denson in District 5 and Commissioner Melissa Link in District 3, against each other, and force Houle to run against the more moderate District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby. He pointed to Republican state legislators’ efforts to reorganize the Gwinnett County government after it flipped blue. “That’s certainly within the realm of possibility,” he said.
Commissioner Allison Wright had a more specific concern: She didn’t want Gran Ellen Drive to be a dividing line. However, when other commissioners offered an opportunity to take another few weeks for some fine-tuning and more public input, Wright declined.
Link suggested abstaining instead of voting no. “If that will help us forward, I will do that,” Thornton said. Wright and Hamby voted no, with Hamby offering no explanation.
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