City elections will be big news this fall, but around the same time, another political process will begin with even longer-lasting impacts: the redrawing of Congressional, state legislature and City Council districts.

Redistricting could affect the makeup of councils that in most cases do not now reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of their populations. And, one expert says, the redistricting may cement the new blue-wave Democratic dominance in local representation in Congress and the General Assembly, even though Republicans will control the process.

One certainty is that the once-a-decade process will be intensely political as it attempts to balance short-term incumbent protection against long-term game plans, says Charles Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor and author of “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.”

Charles Bullock III, a redistricting expert at the University of Georgia.

“If you get it right, you hold [the legislature] for 10 years,” said Bullock of the General Assembly GOP majority that will conduct the Congressional and state redistrictings. And in the digital age, they will be able to make finely detailed tweaks to district maps for political ends. “What’s often said is, the people [once] chose their legislators and now the legislators choose their people,” Bullock says.

Drawing a district

A district is the territory that an elected official represents. At each level of government, districts can vary in shape and size, but must contain closely similar numbers of people under the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of equal representation. To maintain that equal representation, districts are redrawn every 10 years following the results of the U.S. Census, which most recently was conducted in 2020.

Previously redistricting processes typically began around late summer. But the 2020 Census results have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, missing the deadline for the “apportionment” data needed for redistricting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It remains unclear when that data will arrive, but Bullock said the process is likely to begin in late fall and last several months, with the aim of having new districts in place for 2022.

The majority-GOP state legislature gets to draw its own districts as well as Georgia’s Congressional districts. Gov. Brian Kemp likely will call a special session of the General Assembly to focus on that task, Bullock said.

As for City Council districts, that process will be up to local governments. “The timing and process of redistricting at the local level is largely governed by city charters and local legislation,” said Holger Loewendorf, research manager for the Georgia Municipal Association.

Officials in Atlanta, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs indicated they are not yet sure how the redistricting will be performed. Brookhaven, which incorporated in 2012, has never redistricted before. When Sandy Springs last redrew council districts in 2013, the work was done by then City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, who since has become internationally famous as overseer of Georgia’s historic 2020 presidential election and critic of former President Trump’s conspiracy theories. (Sterling has been tapped to chair the city’s Charter Commission this year.)

Rules of the game

At all levels, “Rule number one is, your districts need to have roughly equal population,” said Bullock. To avoid court challenges, Congressional districts need to be very close to equal. By law, state districts can vary up to 5% more or less, but legislators need to provide a convincing rationale, like keeping the district within the same county; a variation of 1-2% is more common.

“Second rule would be, you don’t discriminate against minorities,” said Bullock. “If you have an existing minority-majority district, you probably don’t want to break it up — ‘crack’ it, is the term they use.”

Governments aren’t required to create minority-majority districts, Bullock said, but they better have “some non-racial rationale” for why they did not if there were viable alternatives that someone sues over. He says that’s especially true “if a minority population is relatively compact and is in one part of the city, and instead of putting it in a district, you cracked it…”

Within those two rules, there is plenty of room for gamesmanship on protecting incumbents, punishing the opposition and setting long-term partisan power plays in motion.

But a tricky factor, especially in the north metro area, can be seen in the many close election results in so-called marginal districts, where neither major party dominates the electorate. Bullock says that marginal districts can be great for voters, as their representatives may be more responsive and moderate. But such districts are loathed by incumbents and parties, as a slight change in the political wind can blow them out of power.

That’s what happened 20 years after a Democrat-led redistricting attempted to protect many incumbents by preserving their marginal districts. A conservative shift in national politics knocked out many of them. “If there’s a wave against you, you lose a lot,” said Bullock.

Protecting two 6th Districts?

Now the Republican-led state legislature faces a similar situation, Bullock said. “Especially on the north side of Atlanta, Republicans are going to have to make a choice,” he said: Help remaining incumbents saying “protect me,” or shore up fewer districts with bigger GOP margins.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath might get a stronger grip on her district.

“What you’re thinking about is not how will these districts perform in 2022, but how they are going to perform in 2030,” Bullock said. “… I think that may be a battle within the Republican caucus.”

Such calculations, Bullock speculates, may mean the Republicans giving up on two local districts — both numbered 6 —  that made attention-getting flips to blue in recent years: the 6th Congressional and the state Senate District 6.

The 6th Congressional District — which includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs — has been in the national spotlight for its close partisan battles. The seat once held by Republican icon Newt Gingrich was nearly won by Democrat Jon Ossoff — now a freshly elected U.S. senator — in a 2017 special election. The following year, Republican incumbent Karen Handel was booted out by Democrat Lucy McBath in a close election. In 2020, McBath defeated Handel in a rematch.

Bullock says McBath’s latest victory was close — but not nearly as close as the 10,000-vote margin that gave fellow Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux a win in the neighboring Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District.

“Republicans might say, ‘Clawing back that 6th District might be really hard. Maybe make it even more Democratic, maybe push it more into Gwinnett,’” Bullock said. In exchange, they could put more Republican areas into the 7th District to attempt to flip it back.

State Sen. Jen Jordan flipped the local 6th District in 2017.

Senate District 6 has long been a redistricting battleground. For many years, it was a Cobb County-based Democratic district. In the 2011 redistricting, the Republican-led legislature redrew it to include GOP-heavy areas of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, and succeeded in flipping it to their party. But it was one of those marginal districts. In 2017, Democrat Jen Jordan flipped it back to blue and is now a rising state party star.

“Again, [Republican legislators] might decide, ‘Yeah, we’ll just give the Democrats that one, indeed make it a secure Democratic district,” said Bullock, as a “reverse swap” for increasing the margin in a Republican’s district elsewhere.

Then again, there are more aggressive plays to make. With Atlanta’s immediate northern suburbs becoming more Democratic, Bullock said, “one strategy the Republicans might try … would be to design what are called ‘bacon strip’ districts.” Those are “long, narrow districts” that would start in metro Atlanta, but run far to the north “so the district would be overall Republican.”

That kind of move might be denounced as gerrymandering, but it might not matter. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that arguments about partisan redistricting cannot be judged by federal courts, and Bullock said it remains to be seen whether Georgia’s state courts would take up such cases. However, arguments about discrimination in redistricting can still be taken to federal court.

“We don’t know whether the Democrats are even going to be given a seat at the table or Republicans are going to draw the maps and say, ‘Here’s how it is,’” Bullock noted of the state redistricting process.

–John Ruch and Bob Pepalis

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.