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Editorial: With late census results, political tension high, redistricting will be particularly tough this year
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Census forms mailed out in March 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

The U.S. Census Bureau officially released the first broad set of numbers from the 2020 census on Monday, and they confirmed what most expected to see. Overall, the United States continued to grow during the 2010-2020 period, but not as fast as it once did, and people are continuing to move to the South from other parts of the country.

It won’t be until more numbers are released later in the year that we can delve deeply into more specific areas, but as a state, Georgia’s population increased by nearly a million residents in the decade since the last census, for an increase of more than 10%.

While Georgia added a sizeable number of new residents, it did not grow enough to warrant the addition of a seat in Congress. In each of the three previous census periods the state added congressional representation after the final counting of residents.

That fact that the federally mandated census was even completed, as required by law, is pretty remarkable, given that it was undertaken in the midst of a pandemic, which also has delayed the release of its findings.

The delayed release of final, detailed census numbers is going to have a definite impact as lawmakers prepare for the one huge task they face every 10 years after the counting is complete — the redrawing of political district lines based on new numbers.

That reapportionment process requires resetting the boundaries for all congressional districts, as well as state House and Senate districts. Since elected representation for all of those election districts will be decided by voting in 2022, the impact of the process will be felt almost immediately.

When the process was undertaken in 2011, numbers were available in the spring, public hearings held during the summer, and a special session of the legislature convened in August to take on the considerable job of reapportionment prior to the regular session starting in January. This year, those numbers aren’t expected until the end of September, with the special reapportionment session likely in November, meaning considerable uncertainty and a lot of work to be done before final approval in time for 2022 elections.

In a state that suddenly seems to be the embodiment of “all politics, all the time,” expect much more of the same as lawmakers slough their way through a redistricting process that is exasperating in the best of times and likely to be more so given the condensed time frame and the current political climate.

It’s not likely to be pretty, especially with Republican leadership in both chambers of the General Assembly working to retain that party’s power while lessening the success potential for political candidates from the Democratic Party.

Within state government, there are few things that are as purely political in nature as the redrawing of election district lines, and a number of factors in play this year are certain to heighten the level of political drama. For example:

The support of Georgians for Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election, coupled with the election of two U.S. senators from the Democratic Party, make it clear the state is not nearly as solidly “red” as once was the case. But if Republican lawmakers can draw election districts to maximize the likelihood of continuing to control the General Assembly, they can maintain power despite any shifting in the party allegiance of those elected to statewide office, such as the governorship.

This year’s redistricting plan will not have to gain advance approval of the federal Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under that act, Georgia and certain other states deemed to have a history of racial discrimination were required to get approval of reapportionment plans before they were finalized, as a means of avoiding racially discriminatory political districts. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2013 that the requirement was unconstitutional, so pre-clearance is no longer a necessity.

Those million new residents who have moved into the state since the last time we went through this process have, for the most part, settled into Atlanta and its suburbs, which are rapidly becoming more diverse racially, culturally and politically. Political districts in rural areas will become fewer and geographically larger while those in the metro areas and suburbs become more numerous. How the lines are drawn will go a long way to determine whether candidates of certain parties are likely to be elected.

All of this will play out as the state is defending itself against multiple lawsuits over its new voting law and as the federal government is considering a voting reform bill that would specifically address issues related to the redrawing of political districts. If the federal bill wins passage before the state redraws lines, it could impact the process. If the state does not successfully defend the new election law, the redrawing of districts becomes even more significant in the fight for partisan power. No matter what happens, there’s a chance for more lawsuits after the lines are drawn.

And lest you think the political power move that is the reapportionment process is an evil bred by Republicans, be aware that when Democrats controlled the state government they had the art of gerrymandering districts honed to a science so as to limit Republican success.

Prepare to hear a lot about redistricting in the months to come, especially once more detailed numbers are released by the Census Bureau. The war over how to draw election districts may make our recent political squabbling seem tame by comparison.

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