OP-ED Getting Another Win for Georgia

OP-ED By State Sen. John F. Kennedy of the georgia republican caucus

Georgia sports fans have a lot to be excited about this year.  The Atlanta Braves went on an incredible run, from under .500 in August to bringing home their first World Series title in 26 years.  Powered by a dominating defense, the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs look destined for their first national title since 1980.  And for politicos, pundits, and Capitol insiders, the most anticipated game in town is currently playing out under the Gold Dome— our once a decade redistricting battle royale.

Redistricting is hyped by some people as political blood sport, a pay-per-view worthy event, where partisan combatants enter the octagon hoping to pummel the opposition into submission.  But as chairman of the State Senate committee charged with redrawing state and congressional district lines in accordance with new census data, I have gained a different perspective. The process, when conducted the right way, is less akin to an MMA fight and more of a very complex numbers driven exercise.

First and foremost, the political advantage of one party or another has already been resolved by the voters. Republicans hold a majority and Democrats are in the minority due to results of the 2020 election.  Starting with this premise, the redistricting process becomes a data-driven rebalancing of existing districts throughout the state based on population changes. 

Over the past ten years, Georgia has added about 1 million new residents.  This is not surprising since, simply put, Georgia is the best place to live!  Most of that growth has been in suburban and urban areas instead of the more rural parts of our state.  Our overriding objective is to ensure that the power of every Georgia citizen’s precious vote is equal and not diluted because they live within the boundary of a district with too many people compared to other districts.  It really is that simple.

Even though my philosophy has been to focus on the data and filter out the politics, my colleagues and I are mindful of that fact that numbers on a spreadsheet represent real people.  Each time we move a district line on a map to account for population trends, it has a very real impact on counties, municipalities, communities, and constituents in our representative democracy.  That is why we have listened more than we have talked throughout this process.

Obviously, an ongoing global pandemic has presented challenges along the way. Not only did it delay our receipt of the Census data, it also made our commitment to receiving public input harder to facilitate.  Still, we had 11 public hearings across the state, including several virtual hearings, and we also received over 700 comments through our online portal. 

Because we strove for inclusiveness, we gained the local knowledge of ways the current maps could be improved while making population adjustments.  A relatively smaller mountain county like Pickens wanted to be made whole again with a single Senator representing them.  Montgomery and Toombs counties wanted to be reunited in the same district due to their common bond— sweet Vidalia onions.  We heard dozens of examples like these and have worked hard to incorporate their wishes into our map.

We are now nearing the end of this months-long process to create new maps. The maps our committee designed reflect the months of input and suggestions from Republican and Democratic members of the committee. Unfortunately, every request simply cannot be fulfilled. The numbers are what they are, and difficult decisions have to be made.

However, by applying guiding principles that all Republican and Democrat members of the Senate Redistricting and Reapportionment Committee agreed upon, like keeping counties whole and maintaining communities of interest whenever possible, we can lessen the impact of redistricting.  For example, the Senate district map we voted out of committee splits only 29 of our 159 counties into representation by more than one senator.  That number is down from 38 counties split under our current map.

The thoughtful and fair-minded approach from our Republican Majority can be backed up by more examples than this newspaper will give me space to print.  In addition to the reduction of split counties, we also utilized two currently Republican-held Senate districts, one rural and one in Metro Atlanta, to help adjust for population shifts.  With the two Republicans running for statewide office next year instead of re-election to the State Senate, we identified this as an opportunity to ease the transition to new representation in the coming years.

So, for those who bought a ticket to what they thought would be a heavyweight fight filled with win-at-all costs partisan gamesmanship, I’ve probably delivered a knockout blow to your expectations.  The overt political power grabs and illegal punitive gerrymandering that marred the Democrat-led redistricting process in 2001 are difficult memories, but they are not part of the current redistricting process.

In 2011, Republicans changed the game with a principled approach and passed maps that even the Obama Justice Department couldn’t object to. With that victory as our foundation and data as our guide, I am confident that our Republican majority will again produce constitutionally compliant maps.  In doing so, we will show that the best win for the people of Georgia is one that does not require a battle to ever be fought.

State Senator John F. Kennedy is a Republican from Macon and serves as Chairman of Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee.

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