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Republicans Look to Entrench Their Majority With New Districts

Republicans' proposed congressional map would put Athens entirely in the 10th District and take back a metro Atlanta district Democrats flipped.

If you’re standing outside the Oglethorpe Dining Commons on the UGA campus, you’re in state Rep. Houston Gaines’ House District 117. Walk north, and you’re in Rep. Spencer Frye’s District 118. Cross Lumpkin, and you’re in Rep. Marcus Wiedower’s District 119.

Thirty steps, three districts. It’s just one example of how Athens-Clarke County has been sliced and diced for political purposes over the past two decades. But the lines won’t be the same for long. This week, state legislators kick off a special election to redraw congressional, state House and state Senate maps based on 2020 Census data. Ostensibly, the purpose is to equalize populations among the districts, but the ruling party—in this case, Republicans—can also use redistricting as an opportunity to gain an advantage in future elections.

Colleges Are Often Split

Athens is already divided between two congressional districts, two state Senate districts and three House districts. That’s common among college towns—hundreds of campuses are divided, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which found that student communities are more likely to be gerrymandered, especially if they’re large and include underrepresented groups.

“I don’t pretend to know or prescribe evil intent, but the reality is it dilutes the voice and the voting impact of those students in those communities,” Dylan Sellers of the Campus Vote Project told the Hechinger Report, an education website.

As a diverse, liberal college town surrounded by a sea of deep-red, overwhelmingly white counties, Athens has been a target of conservative lawmakers ever since Republicans took over the state government in the early aughts—despite Democrats’ efforts to hang onto power by drawing gerrymandered maps that were later thrown out in court.

Republicans Have Split Athens in the Past

In 2004, Democrat John Barrow, then an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, won a weirdly shaped 10th Congressional District that snaked from Athens to Augusta and down to Savannah, connecting three Democratic strongholds. Republicans responded by removing Athens from the district, then Savannah, and finally chased Barrow from office in 2014.

Two years later, future Gov. Brian Kemp left his Athens state Senate seat in an unsuccessful bid for higher office. His brother-in-law, Bill Cowsert, ran for the seat, and to ensure his victory over a formidable Democratic opponent, the GOP-controlled legislature split Clarke County in half, putting the eastern part in rural District 47 and adding a portion of heavily conservative Walton County to District 46, which Cowsert would go on to win by double digits.

In 2011, the legislature struck again, redrawing two Athens-area House seats to accommodate a state representative who had switched parties after the 2010 election. Instead of two strongly Democratic seats and one safe Republican seat based in Oconee County, Athens now had one Democratic district (Frye’s) and two that leaned Republican (Gaines and Wiedower’s). This briefly backfired in 2017, when Democrats won both seats in a low-turnout special election, but the GOP quickly took them back the following year. 

Athens-Clarke County is not alone. An analysis by Fair Districts Georgia, a nonpartisan group pushing for transparency in redistricting, found that at least 86 Georgia cities are “cracked” into more districts than their population requires. Nor is UGA unique. According to Fair Districts Georgia, Georgia State University, the Atlanta University Center and even tiny Agnes Scott College are divided between two state House districts.

The hundreds of representatives of voting rights groups and ordinary citizens who spoke at eight town hall meetings across the state were clear that they want fair maps with competitive districts that offer minority groups the opportunity for representation and keep communities intact.

“My hope is that the legislature will care more about democratizing power than partisan victories or political careers,” Athens resident Erin Stacer told the House and Senate redistricting committees at one such hearing.

GOP Can Lock In Its Majority

However, the majority is under no obligation to do that. The real question is, with demographics rapidly changing in the Atlanta suburbs, how far will Republicans go to preserve their majorities for the next decade?

The GOP probably won’t push it, UGA political science professor Charles Bullock told Flagpole. He thinks the party will sacrifice a few seats in the short term to ensure that they can defend the rest in the long run.

“When you’re drawing these districts, you’re not drawing them for 2022 or 2024,” said Bullock, the author of a book on redistricting. “You’re looking at whether you can keep a majority in 2030.”

A map released in September by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Senate Republicans hints that Bullock is right. Republicans held 10 of Georgia’s 14 U.S. House seats heading into 2018, when Democrat Lucy McBath won a previously safe district for Republicans centered around north Fulton County. Last year, Carolyn Bourdeaux won another formerly safe Republican seat based in Gwinnett County. The Senate Republican map would make it tough for McBath to win re-election but bolster Bourdeaux’s chances, likely creating a 9-5 split.

Senate Democrats released a competing map that would likely result in a 7-7 split by moving the 10th District—which currently includes most of Athens—into primarily Cobb County. Both parties’ versions would reunite Athens into one congressional district, but that district would remain overwhelmingly Republican.

Similarly, the Democrats’ state Senate map would put all of Athens back into the 46th, which, according to Bullock, would become a Democratic-leaning district. (Republicans currently hold 34 of 56 seats.) With the governor’s office and both General Assembly chambers in Republican hands, though, Democrats have no say in the process, but the map could come in handy if a lawsuit is filed. Republicans want to keep Athens split between two districts with strong Republican majorities.

As for the state House, where the GOP has a 103-76 edge with one vacancy, Bullock said that Gaines appears to be the most vulnerable Republican in the Athens area. While it’s not yet as noticeable, the same trend that is turning the Atlanta suburbs blue is slowly starting to happen here as well, he said, as newcomers move to the area, drawn by employers like a new electric-car battery manufacturer in Jackson County. But Bullock predicted that Republicans will add more of the red areas outside of Athens to Gaines’ district to shore up his support.

Sure enough, a map released by House Republicans on Nov. 2 would divide Athens into four House districts, only one of them Democratic. One would extend further into Jackson County, another would include most of Oconee County, and the Winterville area would be lumped in with rural counties to the east. The Democratic proposal would give themselves two of three seats in Athens.

Local Maps Are Up for Renewal, Too

Meanwhile, ACC officials are preparing revamped county commission districts. Those are unlikely to vary much from the current lines, with adjustments made solely to keep the districts’ populations in line at roughly 13,000 each.

“You’re not moving these lines miles and miles,” assistant county attorney Lisa Pappas told the ACC Board of Elections last week. “We’re not drawing a whole new map.”

Commission districts 2 and 4—represented by Mariah Parker and Allison Wright, respectively—grew by about 25% and so will have to shrink geographically. Commissioner Russell Edwards’ District 7 actually lost a bit of population and will add territory. Preliminary maps drawn by the county GIS department also maintain ACC’s two majority-minority districts, 2 and 9, as well as District 3, which is evenly split between white and nonwhite residents.

Those maps are scheduled to go to the commission for approval on Nov. 11. They still need legislative approval, too. Ten years ago, the GOP majority ignored the local government’s preference and passed an entirely new map. The goal was to get more conservative representation on the commission, but clearly it didn’t work.

“It’s not like something where you move a line or two and flip the county,” Bullock said, chuckling.