On November 3rd, the day after election day, Georgia's state legislature will hold a special session to discuss redistricting - how the new Census data is being used to draw up new voting districts. I spoke with Karuna Ramachandran, Director of Statewide Partnerships at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta and member of the Georgia Redistricting Alliance and connected with Yurij Rudensky of the Brennan Center for Justice, to learn more about the redistricting process and why anyone who cares about democracy, justice, and the future of a changing South should be paying attention to Georgia.
First off, you need to know what redistricting is. Every 10 years, the U.S. government conducts a Census to understand how the country’s population has grown and changed. After the numbers are in, elected officials redraw the voting district maps to reflect the new changes. The point is to make sure there are roughly an equal number of people in each district. This whole process is called redistricting. “It's fundamentally a good thing, because the principle behind it is one person, one vote and that everybody should have power within this democratic process,” said Karuna.
The danger that can lie behind it: Redistricting undermines democracy when it’s used as a tool for political power - rather than determining power for people. "If the elected official who's running for office again doesn't want me to be able to vote for them, they can actually carve their district out and make sure their own voters are in their district. That’s racial and partisan gerrymandering. It actually limits our ability as communities, immigrant communities to have a say in electing candidates of choice,” said Karuna.
Why Georgia is at risk of this happening- Although Georgia voted Democrat in the Presidential and Senate elections, the state legislature, which is responsible for drawing the redistricting maps, is Republican led. It’s a politically heated environment and many advocates fear the new voting districts and political representation won’t reflect the increasingly diverse reality of the state (Georgia’s population has grown by 10.5 percent in the last decade and that growth was because of the increase in Black, Latino, Asian and multiracial communities in the state.)
This is especially worrying this year, because there is less institutional power to keep this sort of partisan behavior in check. "This decade, there are fewer legal safeguards because the U.S. Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act and green-lit partisan gerrymandering. This makes it harder for advocates to challenge abuses unless Congress passes the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act," said Yurij.
What's more, this whole process - the actual drawing of the maps - happens behind closed doors. Yes, there have been public hearings (which were in English, and largely inaccessible to the 14 percent of Georgians for whom English is a second language) on redistricting over the last several months, but there’s no process ensuring that the feedback from the public was considered when drawing the maps, or even what criteria is being used to draw the maps. “The process and the approval of these maps is all done outside of the public eye. And so we have to be concerned that this process will be used to manipulate the maps, so that they can determine the outcomes of elections,” said Karuna.
For immigrants - who have been driving so much of the growth in the state - advocates worry their communities will be broken up and their political power, undermined. Counties where immigrant populations have grown dramatically, like Gwinnett, Fulton, Dekalb, and Cobb, are in particular danger of being gerrymandered. These areas are historically white and conservative but have undergone enormous demographic change over the past two decades. One example says Yurij - are the suburbs of north of Atlanta. "One of the draft maps already released by legislators would cut out part of DeKalb County to combine it with the whiter, more Republican Forsyth County. The draft map would at the same time pack communities in Gwinnett County – which added 150,000 people since 2010, 15 percent of all statewide growth – into a single district....As a result, this cracking and packing is not just about disadvantaging Democratic voters – the gerrymandering attacks and limits the political power of Black, Latino and Asian communities in Atlanta, just as they’re beginning to be successful in electing representatives of their choice."
So what do advocates suggest people do about it? A few things.
Understand your own community by mapping it. “Community mapping is a great way to get involved, because then you're able to actually identify where your community is on a map and how you want to see it kept together in a district. That's really valuable information that you can take to your county commissioners, school board, mayor, or city council members,” said Karuna.
Make your voice heard. “We have to do whatever we can to show that our communities care about this issue so that they will change and make a process. Folks can talk to their elected officials and say, what’s your plan for redistricting? What’s the process? Because if we don’t have a process to follow, we just can’t be involved,” said Karuna. Check out this page to find your elected official. Here's where you can submit a comment to the legislative committee handling redistricting.
Keep an eye on what's happening. Follow the public hearings on redistricting live at this link. "Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant and public pressure can make a difference," said Yurij.