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No More Gerrymanders: Georgia's Partisan Plan versus the Fair Voting Alternative

by Katie P. Kelly, Lindsey Needham, Sheahan Virgin, Fair Voting Plans // Published October 31, 2011
Georgia Peaches

Snapshot:

  • Lawmakers in Georgia have recently passed a congressional redistricting plan as required by the U.S. Constitution.
  • The root of the worst problems associated with redistricting lies with winner-take-all elections, in which 50% + 1 of the vote guarantees 100% of the representation.
  • As part of an ongoing series, FairVote has produced a "super-district" plan designed for elections with a fair voting system. Fair voting systems are a constitutionally permissible form of proportional representation and, by allowing voters to participate in a meaningful election, are a far better way to achieve public interest objectives than winner-take-all elections.
  • FairVote's fair voting plan for Georgia would result in more balanced representation and competitive elections.

 



Political Context in Georgia

Georgia and the 2010 Census: From 2000 to 2010, Georgia's population grew robustly, from 8.19 million to 9.69 million, for an increase of 18.3%, as compared to a rate of 26.4% from 1990 to 2000. This rate was significantly above the national average of 9.7%. As a result, Georgia gained one U.S. House seat in congressional reapportionment, going from 13 seats to 14, which continued a positive trend in its number of House seats dating back to the 1980 Census.

Internally, population shifts appear to help congressional Republicans; the rural areas of northern Georgia have driven the state's population growth, as Democratic-leaning urban centers have stagnated. Of the state's five largest cities - Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Savannah, and Athens - only Athens posted growth over five percent; Macon, the state's seventh largest incorporated place, actually saw its population decline.  Racially, Georgia remains majority white (55.9%), with an appreciable percentage increase for the black (30.0%) and Latino communities (8.8%), the latter of which nearly doubled.

Redistricting in 2001 was highly contentious as Democrats survived racial and regional infighting to craft an ambitiously partisan map; the Democratic plan was designed to reduce the state's 8-3 GOP U.S. House advantage. Viewed by some as an overreach, the U.S. District Court in D.C. nevertheless upheld the plan. Democrats picked up the state's two new seats and ultimately held 6 of 13 seats in 2006-2010 before falling back to five seats in 2010.  Even so, in the five congressional elections since 2001, only seven of 65 (10.8%) seats were won by less than ten percentage points, while 53 (81.5%) contests were blowouts (20%+ margin of victory) or uncontested.

Republicans, in Control, Push through Partisan Redistricting Plan:  Although Democrats won every governor's race from 1872 to 2002, Georgia has now become  a predominantly Republican state. Democrats haven't won a federal statewide election since 1996, when disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland joined the U.S. Senate. In 2008 Barack Obama ran stronger than many expected, finishing six percentage points behind John McCain, while incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss finished below 50% of the vote. But Chambliss won his December 2008 runoff easily and in 2010, Nathan Deal defeated former governor Roy Barnes by 10%.

Democratic officeholders at the U.S. House level struggled in 2010, with the 8th District's Jim Marshall - one of the most conservative Democrats in the 111th Congress - falling to Austin Scott in 2010.  Sanford Bishop and John Barrow barely held onto their seats. 

Having claimed the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, Republicans ensured they would exercise control over the drawing of district boundaries, lines capable of locking in a GOP advantage at the U.S. House level for a decade. This year marks the first time in Georgia history  that the Republican Party will control the congressional redistricting process.

Republicans in the Georgia General Assembly made their plan public on August 22, with each chamber, according to The Atlanta Constitution Journal, "moving quickly on proposals favorable to the Legislature's Republican majority." Ignoring Democratic protestations that the proposed map would dilute racial minority voting power, the Georgia House on August 25 passed an amended version of the plan along party lines, by a vote of 110-60, receiving concurrence from the Senate six days later, 34-21. Governor Deal signed the new lines into law on September 7, insisting the map"honor[ed] the sacred principle of 'one person, one vote.'"

Georgia, with its history of racial discrimination, is among the states required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (1965) to obtain federal approval for changes to its state election laws and district boundaries. Governor Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens decided to seek "pre-clearance"  for their redistricting maps in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. rather than from the Department of Justice. In 2001, Georgia Democrats under Barnes employed a similar strategy.

Partisan Effects of the Republican Redistricting Plan: Looking at the partisan implications of the map, Republicans have "packed" Democrats into four redrawn districts in order to create safe or lean-GOP districts in other parts of the state.

The most striking aspect of the plan is the GOP's clear targeting of John Barrow - the Deep South's (SC, GA, AL, MS, LA) last remaining white U.S. House Democrat. Under the new map, Barrow's 12th District would become overwhelmingly Republican, losing liberal Savannah, from where Barrow derives much of his support, to Republican Jack Kingston's southeastern 1st District, while picking up Republican-leaning Augusta. "Barrow is a tough man to bring down," The Washington Post notes, but such a "staggering shift" in the partisan composition of his constituency means he is a "marked man."

Although Barrow, currently of Savannah, is not constitutionally required to live in the district he represents, tradition and political expediency leave him with little choice but to move to Augusta; previously, the GOP's 2006 mid-Census fine-tuning of redistricting had caused Barrow to abandon his home in Athens. Barrow has assailed the map, saying that it "reflects a rigging of the district lines in order to produce a predetermined outcome." Republican State Representative Lee Anderson will be Barrow's likely general election opponent.

Elsewhere, the plan squeezes the state's newly awarded fourteenth constituency - though branded as the 9th District - into northeastern Georgia, shifting the old districts of GOP representatives Phil Gingrey, Tom Graves, and Paul Broun. Graves - who took over Governor Deal's former seat - now lives in the 14th District, having shed Hall County, the home of Deal and Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. Not surprisingly, Hall County State Representative Doug Collins, a purported "close ally" of the governor, has announced he will run in the new 9th District.

Finally, the GOP apparently decided to spare Sanford Bishop after his narrow win in 2010. His 2nd District is now over 50% black; previously, Bishop's district had been approximately 47% black. Although the map thus creates a fourth majority-minority district, Democrats have accused Republicans of having "bleached" surrounding districts by packing blacks into four constituencies, thereby reducing the potential influence of the black community in other areas of the state. Republicans have countered  that "minority influence districts" are not protected under the Voting Rights Act.

The Fair Voting Alternative

Time for an Honest and Fair System: These controversies demonstrate the way in which the current system is inadequate: it fails not only to represent accurately the people of Georgia, but reduces voters to mere pawns in a grand political game designed to benefit party elites rather than the people. Especially in states affected by reapportionment, there is the impulse to engage in gerrymandering and other highly undemocratic maneuvering.

In contrast to the Georgia state legislature's politically motivated plan, fair voting puts voters first. Rather than use a winner-take-all system, which accentuates the effects of redistricting and encourages partisan jockeying, FairVote has combined these winner-take-all, gerrymandered districts to form multi-member constituencies called "super-districts." As our analysis will demonstrate, FairVote's super-district plan with a fair voting system generates competitive elections in every corner of the state; it also allows for fuller representation of the political and demographic dynamics of geographical areas: what we call "shared representation."

Several candidate-based forms of fair voting, notably choice voting and cumulative voting, have been upheld by the courts and fit well with our traditions. Choice voting systems, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice in at-large elections, helped break the power of urban political machines in New York and Cincinnati. It is used currently by Minneapolis in citywide elections. From 1870 to 1980, members of the Illinois House of Representatives were elected using cumulative voting, where voters can cast as many votes as there are seats. Using this fair voting system, nearly all of the districts elected both Democrats and Republicans in every election.

Our Georgia plan upholds U.S. Supreme Court rulings on apportionment while providing fair representation and voter choice for California voters. Fair voting plans in super-districts are legal for congressional elections under the U.S. Constitution, but Congress would need to repeal a 1967 law mandating single-member districts. State and city governments often have the power to adopt fair voting systems under current law.

Under the current winner-take-all system, candidates must receive over 50% of the vote to be sure of winning a seat. Consequently, substantial voting blocs are often left unrepresented. For instance, one party's candidate could get just one vote shy of the 50% threshold, and all of her voters would lose out on representation. Similarly, if a voter lives in a district that widely favors one party, that voter might feel like his vote does not matter, especially if that voter favors the less popular party.

With fair voting in super-districts, on the other hand, it is nearly certain that candidates from at least two parties will represent a district, which enables a more accurate representation of the broad spectrum of political opinion. These multi-seat districts also lower the threshold for racial minorities to select a preferred candidate of their own.

Winning with Fair Voting in a Super-District: If FairVote were working from scratch, we could draw the super-district lines with more geographical compactness. Because we created the super-districts from the recently approved congressional districts, however, our super-districts also appear to look rather gerrymandered. Even so, the super-district approach demonstrates that full representation can be attained even within these highly gerrymandered confines. 

Georgia 2011 Redistricting Plan                        Georgia Fair Voting Plan with Super-Districts

From the 14 congressional districts in Georgia, the FairVote proposal creates four super-districts: three three-seat districts and one five-seat district. Each congressional seat still represents approximately 691,975 people, but with a fair voting system, representation is far more likely to reflect the political opinion and demographic makeup of the state. In a three-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 25% of the electorate, while in a five-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 16.67% of the electorate.

 

Super-District Breakdown

Super-District

Number of House Seats

Population Per Seat

Threshold of Exclusion

Districts Used to Make SD

1

3

691,975

25% + 1

3, 13, 14

2

3

691,975

25% + 1

9, 10, 12

3

3

691,975

25% + 1

1, 2, 8

4

5

691,975

16.67% + 1

4, 5, 6, 7, 11

Partisanship Analysis: Based on the 2008 presidential election, Georgia has a partisanship index of 43.79% Democratic. However, the recent plan passed by the state legislature does not reflect accurately the political composition of the entire state and grossly exaggerates Republican influence. Based on district partisanship, the Georgia plan should result in ten safe Republican seats, four Democratic seats (three safe, one leaning), and no toss-ups. To put this in perspective, the statewide Republican partisanship index of 56.21% should result in the GOP winning only eight of 14 seats, yet the Georgia plan is designed to guarantee Republicans two more seats than their expected share. Democrats, on the other hand, should win at least five seats, but they are only given the opportunity for four. To win at least five seats, Democratic candidates would need to succeed in flipping a gerrymandered, safe Republican district.

Additionally, Georgia's plan produces uncompetitive elections all over the state: 13 out of the 14 districts are projected as safe victories for one party or the other. Over the next decade, Democratic voters living in the ten safely Republican districts will have no shot at electing a representative who reflects their ideological preference, likewise for any Republican residents in the three urban Atlanta districts, which have a heavy Democratic tilt. There is just one district that might offer a competitive election, but it requires the Republicans to perform well in a Democratic-leaning district.

Georgia Plan's Partisanship Breakdown

District Population Per Seat Partisanship (D) Safe Seats (D) Leaning Seats (D)   Toss-Up Leaning Seats (R) Safe Seats (R)
1 691,974 41.1% 0 0 0 0 1
2 691,976 54.5% 0 1 0 0 0
3 691,974 30.7% 0 0 0 0 1
4 691,976 69.9% 1 0 0 0 0
5 691,976 81.1% 1 0 0 0 0
6 691,975 37.0% 0 0 0 0 1
7 691,975 35.9% 0 0 0 0 1
8 691,976 34.5% 0 0 0 0 1
9 691,975 21.2% 0 0 0 0 1
10 691,976 35.6% 0 0 0 0 1
11 691,975 31.6% 0 0 0 0 1
12 691,975 40.6% 0 0 0 0 1
13 691,976 63.8% 1 0 0 0 0
14 691,974 24.8% 0 0 0 0 1
Statewide 9,687,653 43.8% 3 1 0 0 10

*Partisanship percentages are based on an interpretation of the 2008 presidential election. Our source for the data is DailyKos.com . The seats were allocated according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship between 46% and 54%, leaning seats have a partisanship between 54% and 58%, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 58%. This does not reflect incumbent advantages. 

In stark contrast, the FairVote super-district plan accurately represents the state's partisan divide. FairVote's super-district plan shows that both major parties have the opportunity to win at least one seat in every super-district. Republicans would have a clear advantage to win seven seats and be well positioned to add between one to two seats based on the quality of their candidates and the national partisan swing. Democrats would have a clear advantage in four districts and a reasonable chance to add one or two more seats.

In addition to providing more accurate partisan representation, FairVote's plan triggers other positive effects: it sparks voter interest and helps to repair the emergent ideological divide between the left and the right. Almost all Republican and Democratic voters will be able to elect a candidate in their district, who represents their political views. Voters will also have a real choice within their party's candidates, since each super-district election presents each party with a chance to win multiple seats. As far as competition, the current Georgia plan offers zero competitive districts; in the super-district plan, every voter would experience a competitive election. Once in Congress, representatives from opposing parties would share constituents of super-districts and, therefore, have new incentives to cooperate on at least some legislative initiatives. Since multiple candidates of a political party are able to win office under the fair voting plan, there will be more opportunities for moderate candidates to win office and contribute their temperate message to the political forum.

While these partisan breakdowns are based on the current two-party duopoly, the FairVote proposal would open the door for third-party and independent candidates, unlike the single-member district, winner-take-all plan. Because challengers to the major parties are rarely able to acquire over 50% of the vote, their backers are left typically unrepresented. Fair voting methods lower the threshold and provide third parties a better chance to win seats. Fair voting is not just fair for Democrats and Republicans; it is fair for voters of all political opinions.

FairVote's Super-District Partisan Breakdown

Super-District

Number of Seats

Threshold of Exclusion

Partisanship (D)

Safe Seats (D)

Leaning Seats (D)


  Toss-Up

Leaning Seats (R)

Safe Seats (R)

1

3

25% + 1

40.8%

1

0

0

0

2

2

3

25% + 1

32.6%

0

1

0

0

2

3

3

25% + 1

43.5%

1

0

0

1

1

4

5

16.67% + 1

51.9%

2

0

1

0

2

Statewide

14

-

43.8%

4

1

1

1

7

Race and Voting Power: When a racial minority group votes as a bloc and meets the threshold, it has the power to elect a strongly preferred candidate, although it may not choose necessarily a racial minority. Under Georgia's new plan, there are three districts with a black voting age population (VAP) greater than 50% and an additional "opportunity," which has a black VAP within three percentage points of the threshold. Over the next ten years, black voters will be positioned well to maintain voting power in these four districts. Latinos, for their part, currently make up over seven percent of the state's total population but have negligible influence in any single-member district.

Georgia Plan Race Breakdown

District

Total Population

Black VAP%

Latino VAP%

Black Voting Power

Latino Voting Power

1

691974

28.4%

5.0%

0

0

2

691976

48.9%

4.0%

1 Opportunity

0

3

691974

22.0%

4.4%

0

0

4

691976

55.4%

8.2%

1

0

5

691976

56.6%

6.9%

1

0

6

691975

12.4%

12.0%

0

0

7

691975

17.1%

16.8%

0

0

8

691976

28.2%

4.9%

0

0

9

691975

6.4%

   9.0%

0

0

10

691976

23.7%

4.0%

0

0

11

691975

15.0%

9.3%

0

0

12

691975

32.8%

4.5%

0

0

13

691976

52.9%

8.7%

1

0

14

691974

8.0%

8.1%

0

0

Statewide

9,687,653

29.2%

7.5%

3 + 1 Opportunity

0

While the Georgia plan offers opportunities for African Americans in four of the state's 14 districts, under the fair voting plan, there is a real possibility to have the black community represented in all four super-districts. Currently, representation of the black community centers around three urban Atlanta districts, but a super-district plan would allow representation that extends throughout all regions of the state. Our fair voting system combines the Georgia legislature's highly concentrated majority-minority districts with predominantly white constituencies, while maintaining at least the same number of opportunities for the black community. In Super-Districts 1, 3, and 4, the black VAP surpasses the threshold required to win a seat. Yet another opportunity exists in Super-District 3, where a second seat representing the black community lies within three percentage points of the threshold. In Super-District 2, black voting power falls just below our opportunity category. Nevertheless, black voters have significant influence at 21% in a super-district with a 25% threshold, which gives them a significant voting bloc that candidates will have a strong incentive to align themselves with.

If the Georgia congressional delegation proportionally reflected the demographics of the state, the Latino community would have the voting power to elect one preferred candidate. Under this fair voting plan, the Latino community does not surpass the threshold in any super-district, but it does have significant presence in Super-District 4, where its 11% VAP just misses the super-district's 13.67% opportunity level. Given the competitive nature of super-district elections, candidates in Super-District 4 would presumably cater to the Latino community.

 FairVote's Super-District Race Breakdown

Super-District

Number of Seats

Threshold of Exclusion

Black VAP%

Latino VAP%

Black Voting Power

Latino Voting Power

1

3

25% +1

27.4%

7.0%

1

0

2

3

25% + 1

21.0%

5.8%

0

0

3

3

25% + 1

35.1%

4.6%

1 + 1 Opportunity

0

4

5

16.67% + 1

31.6%

10.5%

1

0

Statewide

14

-

29.2%

7.5%

3 + 1 Opportunity

0


Conclusion

Although Georgia Republicans clearly engineered a partisan gerrymander, electoral problems do not rest solely with Democrats and Republicans. Rather, the problem lies with the winner-take-all nature of single-member district elections, which allow district lines to determine most outcomes no matter how they are drawn. In this analysis, we have not touched the blatantly partisan lines that were our building blocks; we merely changed the rules and showed that fair voting provides immediate dividends to all voters.

If the redistricting games of winner-take-all continue, voters are likely to become even more disenchanted with our political system. Under Georgia's redistricting plan and many others like it across the country, a vast amount of voters are left unrepresented. Many of these congressional elections lack competition or offer just two candidates to the diverse array of voters. It is clear that one candidate cannot possibly reflect the makeup of her district, as winner-take-all assumes. Therefore, we need a new approach that will more accurately reflect the residents of each state. By adopting fair voting methods in super-districts, we can attain a more representative democracy.