The 2021 redistricting cycle has begun in earnest.

The nation’s exhaustive and often divisive task of reshaping political lines officially began this week. On Monday, the Texas legislature formally convened its special session to redraw maps in a state where 44 percent of its 4 million residents live in five counties. The map-drawing phase of redistricting also is underway in Colorado, Ohio, and Nebraska.

Georgia has yet to start. The state’s 14 Congressional districts remain the same but Georgia, along with other southern states, no longer faces federal oversight when it comes to redrawing its districts or running its elections. Some worry that could lead to gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a tactic used to create an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts.

Georgia’s population grew by about one million during the last decade to about 10.7 million people. The population is more racially diverse. The number of people identifying solely as white has fallen. More Georgians are living in urban areas vs rural areas. The state remains politically polarized. Democrats are clustered in or near cities while more Republicans are in rural and exurban areas. The political and demographic shift now makes Georgia a definitive swing state.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group Fair Districts GA along with Princeton Gerrymandering Project, this week provided a glimpse of what to expect in Georgia.

The two organizations analyzed just-released 2020 census data to create benchmarks/fairness tests that can be used to evaluate proposed maps drawn by the Georgia General Assembly and released later this year. Benchmarks were done for the State House, State Senate, and Congress by drawing 1 million simulated maps per chamber then measuring partisan balance, competitive districts, and minority representation for each map.

Based on the benchmark, here’s what a fair, balanced map would look like for Georgia's three chambers:

Source: “Redistricting 2021: How to Map a Changing Georgia” briefing by Fair Districts GA and Princeton Gerrymandering Project

Al ilmu spoke to Ken Lawler, the chairman of the board at Fair Districts Ga. The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q.Were there any surprises Fair Districts GA uncovered in its research with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project?

A. It came out largely as we expected. We expected the gap to narrow. One interesting data point: We saw in the state senate map, for example, there actually is a significant number of maps that are actually 28, each in terms of Democrat, Republican. So it's very possible, it would be quite reasonable to draw a state senate map that had a 50-50 split. I don't expect that to happen, frankly. But that was a surprise to see how close it is. The other interesting data point was that in the State House map, we think there's an opportunity to draw at least one Hispanic majority district which is brand new. We've never had that before. A lot of the majority-minority districts have all been black voters in the past. but we think that with the growth in the Hispanic population, there might be an opportunity to find one or two Hispanic-majority districts.

Q. Do you expect to see gerrymandering despite the fact that you’ve created a million maps and different scenarios to show that this can be done fairly?

A. The opportunity to continue to gerrymander is certainly there. The incentive is there. I'm not going to speculate what exact number we're going to see. I wish I could be more positive that there’s not going to be gerrymandering. We'll just have to see what they choose to do. Certainly, there’s opportunity to do better.

Q. Are there particular areas of the state that may be more susceptible to gerrymandering?

A. That depends a lot on which map you're talking about. The map that most people are really looking at is the congressional map. Right now we have two competitive districts in Georgia, the sixth and seventh. The Atlanta suburbs are the areas where there's a lot of opportunities to draw districts that remix the population either between minorities and nonminorities or between Democrats and Republicans. So, there's a lot of games that can be played there. We don't know how it's going to turn out. When you get to maps like the State House and Senate, we have a lot more districts to work with. The building blocks are smaller. We're going to be looking at these maps regionally to understand what's going on in coastal Georgia. What's going on in the suburbs. What's going to go on in North Georgia. Each region is going to have its own little characteristics to be looked at. In addition to looking at statistics, we’re going to do our best to examine them regionally, as many other groups are as well, and try to figure out what's going on in these maps intuitively besides what the statistics tell you.

Q. How would you compare this redistricting cycle to previous ones? Is this the most dramatic set of changes? What’s the mood going into this redistricting cycle?

A. From a data point of view, there's been a dramatic change in the last two years, even more so than we have seen. We haven't seen these kinds of changes since the shift from the 2000 era when the Democrats dominated the state and Republicans became dominant in the mid-2010 to 2011 timeframe. So the pendulum has clearly swung back towards the middle. That's very exciting. From a process point of view, unfortunately, we have made zero progress at the process becoming more transparent. There were many calls in the hearings across the state. That said there are three things people want. They want fairness. They want transparency and they want their communities kept together. We made tons of suggestions to the legislature about how we update the guidelines to make the process more transparent. We gave 15 specific suggestions. Not one of which made it into the final guidelines. Despite calls for more transparency, we've got guidelines that are the same as 10 years ago. So we've made zero progress towards transparency, unfortunately.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned going into this redistricting cycle?

A. The lesson has yet to be learned, which is is the legislature going to listen to the calls for more fairness and transparency? This is the first time that Georgia citizens have had the ability to measure maps on our own. All of this stuff that the Princeton Gerrymandering Project has done and other organizations are doing to democratize the process. We all now have the data. We now have all of the same sophisticated tools, in some cases, more sophisticated tools. So we've been able to get a lot of public interest around this process and now we are armed with really good information and tools to measure how well that's being done. So I think we have yet to learn the lesson as to whether that kind of advocacy is effective in Georgia. We hope we get closer to fair. I'm not going to prejudge what we're going to see.

View Fair Districts GA’s 12-page “Redistricting 2021: How to Map a Changing Georgia” briefing here.

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