In a time of political divide, district lines drawn dividing Athens-Clarke County will play a large part in the midterm elections, determining which candidates voters see on their ballots.
ACC contains portions of two state Senate districts, three state House districts and two U.S. Congressional districts.
For each of these districts, the Republican-led Georgia General Assembly drew lines based on the 2010 census, creating each district with as equal a population as possible, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.
U.S Congressional Districts 9 and 10
Georgia’s 9th and 10th Congressional Districts, both on the midterm ballot, divide ACC.
“[Athens-Clarke County] is, geographically, the smallest county in the state,” Bullock said. “It doesn’t make sense to divide it, but you’ve got to get these populations right in line where if you had a bit more leeway, you could say, ‘OK fine. Let’s use the county boundary here.’”
Before drawing district lines, state legislatures “merge political data” not gathered in the census from “recent past elections — governor, president, maybe even something like public service commission” to determine Georgians’ political affiliations, Bullock said.
U.S. Congressional Districts 9 and 10 were drawn after the 2010 U.S. Census to equalize populations and not in an “effort to dilute anybody’s votes,” Bullock said.
However, this is not necessarily the case for state Senate and state House districts, which are drawn using political data to benefit the majority party of the Georgia General Assembly.
“For the state House and the Senate, yeah, there’s probably a different motivation,” Bullock said.
Georgia House Districts 117, 118 and 119
In the past, ACC was divided into two state House districts that were Democratic and exclusively in the county, Bullock said.
Republicans then consolidated the liberal-leaning Athens districts into a solid Democratic District 118, so that Districts 117 and 119 would have less competition, said incumbent Democrat Deborah Gonzalez at a discussion on gerrymandering and voter suppression on Oct.16. She called for a nonpartisan commission to redraw Georgia’s district lines.
Gonzalez, who is running against Republican Houston Gaines for state House District 117, beat Gaines last year in a special election for District 117 with 53.15 percent of the vote. The victory was widely viewed as an upset since District 117 had been Republican since 2002.
Bullock called this process “packing” where the districts are drawn to pack a party’s votes into one district.
In District 118, incumbent Spencer Frye has “far more Democrats than you need to win,” Bullock said.
“If you drew it differently and took those [Democratic votes] and put it into [District] 117, this would probably be a pretty safe district … Then you get two out of three [districts] which are Democratic,” Bullock said. “I’m sure Republicans are saying, ‘There’s no way we can take all three, so we pack as many Democrats as we can into this one, which gives us a shot at the other two.’”
Georgia Senate Districts 46 and 47
Contrary to packing, state Senate Districts 46 and 47 were drawn through the process of “cracking,” Bullock said.
“Where you got a Democratic block of voters, who if you keep them together they can dominate a district, you split them, so that now they’re a minority in each of two districts,” Bullock said.
ACC was first split into two Senate districts in two years after Republican Brian Kemp won District 46 in 2004, which included a small part of Madison County and all of Oglethorpe, Oconee and ACC. Kemp later stepped down to run for state agriculture commissioner, setting up a race in 2006 between Kemp’s brother-in-law — Republican Bill Cowsert — and Democrat Jane Kidd for the open seat.
After Kemp stepped down, the Republican-led state Senate passed Bill 386 in January 2006, effectively splitting the majority Democratic ACC into Districts 46 and 47. District 46 then consisted of all of Oconee and half of ACC and half of Walton, while District 47 consisted of the other half of ACC and all of Barrow, Madison and Oglethorpe counties and kept parts of Elbert and Jackson counties included before the 2006 redistricting.
“I went to the well and plead with my fellow House members that this was not right,” Kidd said. “They were trying to elect people from the parties instead of letting the constituents vote for whomever they wanted to.”
Cowsert, who lost to Kidd in 2004 for state House District 115 by a margin of 11.8 percent, defeated Kidd in 2006 for state Senate District 46 by a margin of 11.4 percent.
“I have to believe that they did not want me to win,” Kidd said. “They knew I was a strong Democrat and that I was representing a majority of the people in Athens-Clarke County who were Democrats, and I believe they did not want a Democrat to win. When I announced that I was going to run for that Senate seat, that’s when the minds started working.”
"I went to the well and plead with my fellow House members that this was not right."
-Jane Kidd, former candidate
Twelve years later, ACC is still divided between Senate Districts 46 and 47, which Kidd believes will set up difficulties for Democratic challenger Marisue Hilliard against Bill Cowsert similar to her own race in 2006.
“Marisue is a terrific person, and she’s got great qualifications and experience to be a wonderful senator,” Kidd said. “It’s going to be very difficult for Marisue to overcome the incumbency of Cowsert and the way the district is drawn.”
Bullock said this difficulty was by design.
“Clearly, Republicans were drawing Clarke County to benefit themselves so they get two of the three House seats and get two Senate seats here,” said Bullock, who also mentioned the worst map in Georgia was drawn by Democrats in 2001 and 2002 when “they were desperate” to keep control of the state.
Value of the vote
Still, Bullock maintained no vote is “worth less” than another vote due to each district being roughly equal in population.
“Is there a way in which things could be drawn so that you might have a greater chance of being the decisive vote? Yeah, there probably are some districts in the state where it’s more likely you would have something approaching that situation,” Bullock said. “Although, in both [District] 119 and [District] 117, evidence is that these are flippable districts since they both flipped in the special election, so maybe Republicans did slice it a little too thin.”
Bullock said if the courts rule that partisan gerrymandering must be limited, implementing a solution “may be difficult to figure out.”
At the Oct. 16 discussion, Tabitha Johnson-Green, Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District joined Gonzalez in calling for a nonpartisan commission to draw Georgia’s district lines.