Georgia GOP Never Saw a Gerrymander They Liked Until Now

The Georgia Legislature was called back to session Monday to tackle the once-a-decade task of redistricting. This process is the ultimate partisan activity, with some members ambitiously looking to tweak lines to elect more like-minded legislators and some simply fighting for survival if the population totals in their part of the state no longer add up to what they are used to. It’s worth noting that this is the first year that Republicans have controlled both chambers and the governor’s office during redistricting in Georgia, and that their path to power began with either a miscalculation or a desperate hail mary by the Democrats, who ten years earlier tried every trick in the book to maintain their power.

Ten years ago, Republican voters, led by plaintiff Sara Larios, sued over the map Democrats passed arguing that Democrats used redistricting as a tool to increase the power of Democratic voters at the expense of Republicans, and a court agreed that Georgia’s maps were discriminatory, violated the Constitution, and would have to go. Nathaniel Persily is not a household name in Georgia, but the University of Pennsylvania law professor, who assisted the US District Court’s special master in redrawing Georgia’s lines back in 2004, casts a large shadow over the state.
When a court redraws a map, its preference is to modify the most recent legal boundaries passed under a political process, instead of starting from scratch. On the coattails of George W. Bush’s 58% re-election victory, a “fair” set of maps produced legislative majorities Republicans claimed they had been denied. The long awaited new day in Georgia was finally dawning for Republicans, who now had complete control of the state.
But in politics as in life, what’s old is now new. Now it’s instructive to see whether or not Republicans are complying with none other than Nathan Persily, who advised the National Conference of State Legislatures how to go about the process of political gerrymandering in a post-Larios world that he himself was a major player in.
  1. Jurisdictions would do well to justify their plans or individual districts by appealing to principles other than partisan advantage
  2. Avoid maximization of partisan advantage
  3. If you are going to gerrymander, do so by way of traditional districting principles
  4. Strive for perfect population equality even for state plans or at least be able to justify deviations in terms of traditional districting principles (compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities of interest, or protection of incumbents of both parties)
So have Georgia Republicans learned from the mistakes Democrats made in 2001 that led to court-drawn map? One look at the draft maps show that they haven’t, and that they are ignoring Persily’s warnings. In a ploy to maximize their partisan advantage, Republicans, are trying to redraw the districts to achieve 2/3rd majorities that would allow them to place Constitutional amendments on the ballot without input and in some cases over the objections of Democrats.
Additionally, Republicans have defended their draft maps that feature districts that snake from one part of metro Atlanta to another by saying they are obligated to create majority-minority districts where none currently exist and dilute what they consider to be exceedingly African American districts, even though the Courts have never mandated the creation of additional majority black districts in this manner, and in many cases have ruled against plans for doing just this. For instance, the old 11th Congressional district that stretched from DeKalb to the coast to find a black majority was rejected with extreme prejudice by the courts in the 90’s.
It goes without saying in regards to the new maps that compactness, contiguity and respect for communities of interest only apply in areas where Republicans overwhelmingly dominate. These traditional redistricting principles were thrown out with the bath water as soon as it became necessary to achieve the goal of political maximization for the majority party.
Current Georgia Republicans, clearly left with a bad taste in their mouths from the Democrat-controlled redistricting processes of the past, seem intent on one-upping Georgia Democrats this time around. This plan will probably backfire; it just remains to be seen exactly how. Democrats are certain to challenge the maps in court, and while a win in court is somewhat unprecedented on a political appeal, Republicans are offering up an ugly looking map built on the back of a discredited theory of the Voting Rights Act.
If the courts ultimately allow the Republican maps, their plan could still backfire for individual Republican members – many in places like Gwinnett County find themselves in districts that are much more competitive than in the past, as map makers have subtracted reliable Republican neighborhoods from these districts in an effort to create new Republican leaning districts elsewhere. It’s worth noting that ten years ago Democrats thought they too were in reach of a Constitutional majority in the Senate, but left so many districts with only narrow Democratic advantages that on Election Day in 2002 they lost in seven districts where their candidates came within 5% of a victory.

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