Changes are coming to Georgia’s state and federal congressional lines, and residents of Forsyth County and surrounding areas were able to express thoughts on the process.
The Georgia House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee and Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee held the third of 11 hearings across the state at South Forsyth High School on Tuesday, June 29, to discuss the potential new boundary lines.
“Our goal is to ensure that every comment that we get goes into a central location that we can utilize it as about the work for this process,” said state Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, who serves as chairman of the Senate committee.
The redistricting and reapportionment process is done once a decade and uses information from the latest U.S. census data to make sure the districts have close to equal population numbers.
In an informational video shown before speakers were given a chance to comment, officials gave some figures for this round of the process, including that the state population was now about 10.7 million, meaning each of the state’s 14 U.S. House districts will have about 765,000 residents, each of the 56 state Senate districts will have around 191,000 and each of the 180 state House districts will have about 59,500 residents.
No maps of the proposed lines were shown, and state Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, chairwoman of the state House committee, said a special session of the Georgia General Assembly to look at and approve the new boundaries would be held later this year after the state receives federal census data, which she said would likely receive in September.
The meeting brought out about 200 attendees, including more than 40 speakers giving their thoughts on the process.
Forsyth County District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson, who said she was speaking as an individual, was one of several from Forsyth County who said they wanted to see the county be represented by a single congressional district, instead of being split into Georgia’s 7th Congressional District on the south end of the county and the 9th District in the north.
“Forsyth County, for a very long time, has been disenfranchised as a county, and that may seem odd because everybody looks at Forsyth County as a place that is healthy, a place that is successful, a place that has good schools and a good community,” Semanson said. “But what we do lack is actual representation at the state and the federal level.
“I say that because we have been a county that has been divided, so when it comes to transportation, when it comes to really any type of program that involves the state or the federal government, we don’t have a voice for our community.”
Other speakers echoed concerns that Forsyth being in two districts made the county less of a priority for each when dealing with transportation, growth or Lake Lanier issues.
As Forsyth County’s population has grown more diverse since the last round of redistricting, Karuna Ramachandran, with Asian American’s Advancing Justice- Atlanta, said the organization has been in in the county for years to “ensure that the voices of Asian-American communities are represented” and urged members of the committee to make materials and notices in a variety of languages.
“This is particularly important in Forsyth County,” Ramachandran said. “We have 15% of the population … Asian-American, 10% Hispanic or Latino, 4% black; 17% of the population here is foreign-born, and of that 54% is Asian American, 22% of the population of Forsyth speak a language other than English at home, and that’s even higher than some national averages.”
Chairwoman of Georgia’s 9th District Republican Party Rebecca Yardley also spoke about the need for keeping communities together as lines are redrawn and to keep politics out of the process.
“That diversity is what draws people to the state. It is important that as we look at redrawing congressional, senate, House and local districts, that we remember the importance of keeping our communities whole,” Yardley, a Cleveland resident, said. “The needs of communities, such as infrastructure, hospitals, schools and businesses, help guide our representatives… in how to best advocate for those that they represent.
“I implore this committee to remember that redrawing of our lines in this state should be non-partisan. It isn’t about being Republican, nor is it about being Democrat, but rather it is seeking to do what is best for the citizens that call this state home, ensuring that, politics aside, each person has the best representation possible, that our communities prosper and that Georgia continues to be a great state in which to live and play.”
Like keeping communities and counties together, another common theme among speakers was asking that the process remain non-partisan and avoid gerrymandering or drawing borderlines in ways that give an unfair advantage to one party.
Diane Fisher, president of the League of Voters of Gwinnett County, said it was unlikely any proposal would make all voters in the state happy but urged committee members to have a non-partisan review of the new boundaries and to allow the public to look at the plans before any decisions are made.
“You have heard a great deal of concern that partisan politics will drive the map-drawing process. By having non-partisan committees, these fears will be alleviated,” Fisher said. “It is also important that the public knows the rules and has time necessary to reflect and respond to them. Please adopt rules and guidelines for the special session and post them online before the special session to finalize maps begins.”
Along with Kennedy, members of the state Senate committee included state Sens. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and Bill Cowsert, Tonya Anderson, Dean Burke, Gloria Butler, Mike Dugan, Marty Harbin, Ed Harbison, Harold Jones II, Jeff Mullis, Michael 'Doc' Rhett and Blake Tillery.
The state House committee is made up of Rich and state Reps. Kimberly Alexander, Mandi Ballinger, Buddy DeLoach, Matt Dollar, Chuck Efstration, Barry Fleming, Carl Gilliard, Mack Jackson, Jan Jones, Randy Nix, Sandra Scott, Ed Setzler, Lynn Smith, Richard Smith and Mickey Stephens.
Along with the in-person meetings, comments were also accepted online.
More information on the process, a schedule of upcoming meetings and archived videos of previous hearings are available at https://www.legis.ga.gov/joint-office/reapportionment.