Georgia redistricting will diminish rural lawmakers and their influence

Belle Doss lays out seating charts on the desks of state representatives in preparation for the opening of the Georgia General Assembly Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, at the state Capitol in Atlanta.
Belle Doss lays out seating charts on the desks of state representatives in preparation for the opening of the Georgia General Assembly Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, at the state Capitol in Atlanta.
Credit AP Photo/David Goldman
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Redistricting is like a game of musical chairs.

Some of the 180 seats in Georgia’s state House and the 56 seats in the state Senate are going to get shifted to fast-growing regions around metro Atlanta and Savannah when a special session starts next week to redraw lines. And when the music stops, some lawmakers in south Georgia are going to be left without a chair.

At least one state Senate district and as many as four House districts may have to shift out of middle and south Georgia, while northwest Georgia could also lose a House district, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Lawmakers must redraw electoral districts at least once every decade following the U.S. Census to equalize populations. 

And it could be difficult for the majority Republicans to sacrifice Democrats and save their own members. There’s only one rural white Democrat left in the General Assembly, Rep. Debbie Buckner of Junction City. There are many Black Democrats in rural areas, but wiping out their districts could invite voting rights lawsuits.

“I know there are going to have to be some hard conversations had among friends,” said Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican.

His House District 172, covering parts of Tift, Colquitt and Thomas counties, needs to grow by more than 6,000 people to reach the ideal population of 59,511. Complicating that effort? All six districts that surround Watson’s — all held by Republicans — are also below the ideal population.

That’s a prime example of how Georgia saw starkly unbalanced population growth even as it added more than a million people from 2010 to 2020.

Population grew the fastest in regions around Atlanta and Savannah. But in a decade where a county had to grow by more than 10% just to keep up with the state’s overall growth, 53 of the 71 smallest counties lost population. Only one district south of Macon and west of the Atlantic coast — Bonaire Republican Shaw Blackmon’s District 146 in Houston County — grew faster than the state.

It’s not just a south Georgia story. Representation is also going to shrink in northwest Georgia, including suburban Chattanooga, Dalton and Rome. Rep. Steve Tarvin, a Chickamauga Republican, said there may be no way to add enough population to the region’s districts to preserve all of them and keep all the Republican incumbents in separate districts.

“It may end up that some of us have to run against each other,” Tarvin said.

That could be especially true for Tarvin and Republican Rep. Mike Cameron, who lives only a short distance away in Rossville. Tarvin’s District 2 needs to add more than 5,800 people to reach the ideal size, while Cameron’s District 1, tucked into the Georgia’s northwest corner formed by Tennessee and Alabama, needs to add nearly 6,800. Being in the corner limits map-drawing options, as the district can only grow south or east.

The situation may be most dire around Albany, where three House districts that share parts of Dougherty County are a combined 30,000 people short of ideal.

“The Albany area and other areas, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” said Rep, Dexter Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat.

Many House members have a shopping list to make their districts whole. Sharper would like his District 177 to grow northwest out of Valdosta to pick up the 5,400 people he needs. Rick Williams, a Republican from Milledgeville, thinks maybe he can make up his 8,000-person shortage by moving farther into neighboring Putnam County. But like Watson, both would have to take population from other districts that are already lacking.

The decline of rural population means more lawmakers will represent urban and suburban areas, and fewer ones will be vegetable farmers like Watson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He’s far from the only one concerned about shrinking rural influence.

“All the issues that we’ve been working on, we’re not going to be able to make more progress if our numbers keep shrinking,” Watson said.

It’s also a threat to the traditional dominance of rural lawmakers, especially in the House. The only House speaker from metro Atlanta in more than a century was Glenn Richardson, a Republican from Paulding County who led the body from 2005 through 2009.

“Most of the rural legislators tend to serve longer,” Watson said. “They serve in the leadership. That makes us more valuable.”

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