Dire consequences of gerrymandering in Athens

As a result of consistent gerrymandering, Athens, a progressive college town, has been dually represented in the United States Congress by far-right Republicans, currently Reps. Jody Hice and Andrew Clyde.

With a new slew of voting restrictions being introduced by state Republicans, Georgia has been held up by politicians nationwide as an example of voter suppression and the need for electoral reform. This attention is greatly needed. With three recounts confirming the accuracy of Georgia’s most recent major election, this push can only be understood as a partisan power grab. But while these new policies may be getting the most attention, the greatest blight on Georgia’s democracy already exists.

This is in the form of our district drawing process, which is run by the majority party in the state legislature. It allows politicians to draw congressional and state legislative constituencies, letting them directly choose their own voters. This is as bad as it sounds. As a result, Georgia’s maps have been consistently gerrymandered, or drawn for the benefit of one political party. And under Republican rule, Athens has been one of the most gerrymandered cities in the state.

While this gerrymandering is at its most obvious at the state legislative level, recent history shows how Athens has also long been a target at the congressional level as well. During the most recent round of redistricting in 2011, state Republicans approved a map that split Clarke County, the smallest county in the state, in two. Drive north past Route 129, and you’re in Georgia’s 10th congressional district. Drive south, and you’re in Georgia's 9th congressional district.

As a result, Athens, a progressive college town, has been dually “represented” in the United States Congress by far-right Republicans, currently Reps. Jody Hice and Andrew Clyde. Hice, who represents the southern half of the city, lives in Greensboro and thinks women should only run for office “within the authority of their husbands.” Clyde, who represents the northern half, is a Jackson county arms dealer who runs a chain of armories built like castles.

These politicians have no political or even personal interest in representing our split-up city, leaving Athens effectively without a congressperson. During the pandemic, this became depressingly clear. As the rest of Congress was working on aid bills, Rep. Doug Collins, one of Athens’ representatives at the time, was traveling across the state to campaign for a Senate seat. And while he was running for Congress, future-Rep. Clyde showed a similar disdain for Athens. Despite living in Jackson county, he sued the Clarke county government during the first month of the pandemic to end a shelter-in-place order so he could make more money from his Athens-based armory, using the city as a foil to appeal to rural conservatives.

This is a shockingly unhealthy relationship for elected officials to have with their constituents, and it is entirely intentional. Before Republicans took control of the state government in 2004, Athens was part of Georgia’s 12th congressional district, a swing district that stretched across East Georgia. While this district may have looked strange on a map, it was highly competitive in reality, allowing for medium-sized cities like Athens, Augusta and Savannah to have a voice in Congress. Its congressman, Rep. John Barrow, was himself an Athenian, a former member of the Athens-Clarke County commission who was even related to a past president of the University of Georgia.

But after coming to power in 2004, Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly engaged in a rare, mid-decade redistricting scheme to change the state’s district lines. In order to shore up their members, they redrew the entirety of Clarke County into the strongly Republican 10th Congressional District. This placed Athens into the same voting bloc as staunchly Republican counties, guaranteeing that it would always be outvoted in congressional elections.

Congressional politics changed overnight. Barrow was forced to move out of his ancestral home of Athens all the way down to Savannah, where he kept his new seat. But in the new 10th district, a 2007 special election under the new boundaries would foreshadow Athens' future role. Where Athens had once been represented by a native son, it was now forced to vote in a contest between two rural Republicans.

Fourteen years later, this toxic relationship between Athens and its representatives has remained unchanged. As the 117th U.S. Congress continues, Athenians should support the passage of new electoral reforms, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would ban partisan gerrymandering. This act would help make Georgia’s districts more competitive and potentially give the city real representation for the first time in over a decade.

Such a change would immeasurably strengthen Athens’ voice in Washington. Republican or Democratic, Athens deserves a full-time, all-city Representative.