Karuna Ramachandran stood before the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday and made a simple request during public comment at the board’s business meeting.
Ramachandran is the director of statewide partnerships for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, but she is also the campaign manager for the Georgia Redistricting Alliance, a group of more than 20 organizations that are watching the redistricting process in the state.
Her request was that the commissioners let residents have a voice in the redistricting process.
“The people in Gwinnett are very interested in being engaged with redistricting,” Ramachandran said. “I think it is quite possible to engage the public in meaningful ways so that they feel their power of the vote is respected, and I think there’s potential for Gwinnett to really lead the charge for other local governments to do that as well.”
Although the data needed to draw redistricting maps for Gwinnett County commission districts won’t be available until this fall, the county’s leaders are already pondering how to solicit public input on the new maps.
County commissioners heard a briefing on redistricting on Tuesday. While the redrawing of congressional and state legislative district boundaries gets much of the attention during redistricting, the lines for local seats, such as county commission and school board districts must also be redrawn.
Those lines are redrawn based on census data that the state receives from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The legislature must approve redrawn boundaries for congressional, state legislative, county commission and school board districts.
“There’s no guarantee that whatever will be submitted will be approved,” Theresa Cox, an attorney for the county, told commissioners.
The legislature is expected to handle congressional and state legislative boundary maps in a special session late this fall. County commission and school board district maps are expected to be dealt with when the legislature reconvenes in January for its regular 2022 legislative session.
One issue the county has to sort out is whether its own geographic information system, or GIS, will be used to draw up commission district boundaries, or if the legislature’s reapportionment office will be used to draw up a map.
“(A redistricting plan) is required to be drawn by (the reapportionment office) or submitted to them for certification,” Cox said. “A redistricting plan drawn by the reapportionment staff, to get there a local government would have to ask for a sponsor from the local legislative delegation.
“They would have to issue a written letter sponsoring or authorizing the local government to work with the reapportionment office. A legislator can choose to work with the reapportionment office on their own instead of authorizing the local government to work with the reapportionment office.”
A legislator could proceed with a redistricting plan that has not been certified by the reapportionment office, Cox said, but they would have to attach a letter to the reapportionment office explaining why it has not been certified.
Commissioner Ben Ku asked if a preliminary version of potential maps could be drawn up before the 2020 Census data arrives, and just use the annual population estimates that the Census Bureau creates, to give residents a rough idea of what the maps could possibly look like. County staff advised against that, however, because they said that data is based off surveys and is not a hard count like the decennial census.
A concern that Commissioner Jasper Watkins raised was that starting the public input process too soon would mean starting it without maps, based on the 2020 Census data, being available to show residents. He also expressed concerns that starting too early with public input, before finalized maps are ready to show residents, could increase partisan divisions over what already normally stokes partisan divisions in debates over congressional and legislative boundaries.
Watkins said the county will have to be transparent with residents about what is going on with the redrawing of district lines, but he was also worried that putting out a map, and then coming back to residents later with a revised map could create confusion.
“It’s easy to say it won’t be partisan (at the local level), but we’re already so tribal that it’s going to come up,” Watkins said. “That’s why I think we need to be so crystal clear with the messaging.”
Concerning the messaging the county uses to talk about the maps, Watkins added, “It’s going to have to be so dadgum bipartisan that it’s almost purple. Everything we say is purple because if not, it’s just going to be a free-for-all of two sides in a meeting over why it should be.”
Ku said, however, that the meetings, at first, could be a place where residents give their thoughts on what types of considerations they want to commissioners to keep in mind when coming up with a map to send legislators for approval.
“We could do it as listening sessions ... ‘Just tell us what you want us to consider when making these decisions,’ “ Ku said.
Commissioner Kirkland Carden pointed out, however, that committees in the state House and Senate that are dealing with redistricting are already holding public input meetings to hear from residents about what they want to see the legislature consider when the congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn. The House’s redistricting committee is led by state Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee.
“There would be no maps presented at the first meeting,” Carden said. “It would just simply be, ‘This is the current maps as is. We just got the data yesterday. What are some things we can keep in mind when drafting the new maps There’s not three draft maps existing today because there’s no data today.’
“I think if we keep that message direct with people from the beginning then we’re not going to have those issues.”