Extreme partisan gerrymandering sent Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress
The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to remove newly elected Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from congressional committees for endorsing violence against Democratic politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and for spreading harmful and hateful disinformation, from the QAnon conspiracy theory that portrays Democrats as cannibalistic pedophiles, to the lie that school shootings have been staged, to various anti-Semitic tropes.
One of the last straws before the House acted was video that recently came to light showing Greene in Washington, D.C., on two separate occasions stalking and harassing gun-regulation advocate David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
Coming in the wake of January's attack on the U.S. Capitol by a far-right mob incited by former President Trump and other Republican politicians, the House's dramatic move to de-committee Greene marks the first time in modern history that the majority party has taken such action against a member of the minority. More typically, the offending member's party internally handles such matters, which typically involve criminal charges. But while the Republican House leadership removed Rep. Steve King of Iowa from committees in 2019 for making a racist remark to a publication, it declined to take action on Greene.
Before the Feb. 4 House vote to remove her, in which Democrats were joined by 11 Republicans, Greene gave an emotional speech on the chamber floor in which she did not apologize for her remarks but noted they were made before her election and called them "words of the past." She also invoked her Christian faith, complained that she "was allowed to believe things that weren't true" and attacked the mainstream media, national debt, "open borders," "cancel culture," big tech, transgender identity, Black Lives Matter protests, and abortion — which she called "the worst thing this country has ever committed."
Though Greene has been disempowered when it comes to passing legislation, she remains the elected representative for Georgia's 14th Congressional District, where she's a polarizing figure. She has pledged to use her platform and newfound free time to push the Republican Party further to the right. She's successfully used the controversy over her committee removal to raise small-donor funds for her campaign, raking in $325,000 in the two days before the vote, according to OpenSecrets.org.
With Greene a rising celebrity on the far right, a question confronting U.S. democracy movements is how to prevent such violence-endorsing extremists from getting elected to Congress in the first place. That will take reforms to end the extreme partisan gerrymandering that helped make Greene's election possible, and which voting rights experts say is at risk of being repeated this year in a handful of Southern states, including Georgia.
Consolidating GOP control
Encompassing the southernmost reaches of the Appalachian mountains, the outer northern edge of the Atlanta metro area, and some of the Chattanooga metro area, Georgia's 14th Congressional District came into being after the 2010 census, which found that the state's population had grown 18% over the previous decade, giving it an additional U.S. House seat. States approach redistricting differently, and Georgia is among those where the legislature draws maps that the governor can veto.
Historically, the legislature handled the technical details of the map-drawing process through a contract with the University of Georgia's nonpartisan Carl Vinson Institute of Government. But in 2011, the Republican-controlled state legislature decided — unilaterally — to take a different approach.
At the time, REDMAP was well underway; that's the Republican State Leadership Committee initiative that at the time targeted legislative races in key swing states like North Carolina with an eye toward redistricting control after 2010. After helping Republicans win and extend control in legislatures, the project used advanced map-drawing technology to create districts favorable to the GOP. Georgia, having been governed by a Republican trifecta controlling the House, Senate, and governor's office since 2005, didn't need help from REDMAP — but legislative Republicans there still took steps to further consolidate their party's control of the map-drawing process.
In February 2011, Georgia's GOP legislative leaders announced the creation of a Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office. It employed many of the same people who worked on redistricting at the Carl Vinson Institute. Its adviser was Anne W. Lewis, a partner in the firm Strickland Brockington Lewis; at the time, she served as general counsel to the Georgia Republican Party. The GOP leadership claimed basing the work at the Capitol was cheaper.
Democrats in the legislature criticized the change. Stacey Abrams, who at the time served as the House minority leader and represented Atlanta and unincorporated DeKalb County, said "that they did not include Democrats in this decision raises some serious questions about transparency and accountability." Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown called the news "very much a surprise" and said the office is "obviously not nonpartisan."
When Democratic legislative leaders asked for a separate reapportionment office to provide them with the needed legal and other support services to play a meaningful role in the map-drawing process, the Republicans turned them down. They said the new office would serve all members of the General Assembly.
'Affront' to Voting Rights Act
As of 2010, after Georgia held elections based on the old map from 2001, Republicans controlled seven of the state's 13 congressional seats. Of its six Democratic districts, three were in the Atlanta area and considered safe for Democrats even under the new 2011 map. But two other districts held by Democrats — John Barrow's and Sanford Bishop's — were seen as likely targets for Georgia Republicans looking to expand power as they gained full control of redistricting for the first time.
As it turned out, the GOP's 2011 maps displaced Barrow, who's white, from a crossover district where multiracial coalitions were able to elect candidates of their choice, and redrew him into one that's now solidly Republican. The map also made the district held by Bishop, who's Black, majority-minority — a gerrymandering practice known as "packing," when a party's voting power is concentrated in one district to reduce its power in others. And it put part of strongly Democratic Atlanta in Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey's 11th District — a gerrymandering practice known as "cracking," when the voting power of a party's supporters is diluted across districts.
The GOP mapmakers placed Georgia's new 14th Congressional District in the state's northwestern corner — and they drew the lines in a way that didn't reflect the state's growing demographic diversity. In 2000, Georgia was already among the 10 states with the highest concentration of nonwhite residents at 37%. By the 2010 census, the nonwhite portion of the state's population had grown to 44%, with the Hispanic population accounting for almost a quarter of the state's population growth — and that's with an undercount of people of color in Southern states including Georgia. Georgia's 14th, on the other hand, was drawn by Republicans to be 85% white, 12% Latino, and 8.7% Black. The district is also wealthier and older than Georgia as a whole, with a 2017 poverty rate of 14.7% compared to the state rate of 16%, and a resident median age of 38 compared to the state median of 36.8. Political observers predicted the changes would lead to more Republicans in the state's congressional delegation.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights leader who died last year, called the map "an affront to the spirit and the letter of the Voting Rights Act." The state's League of Women Voters, which has taken a lead role in fighting gerrymandering, accused GOP lawmakers of disregarding public input given at the dozen hearings held across the state.
In August 2011, after making minor changes that didn't affect the 14th, the Georgia House and Senate approved the congressional map in party-line votes and Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed it into law. That October, the state submitted the map to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance as then required under the Voting Rights Act for states and local jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination. At the same time, Georgia filed a federal lawsuit challenging the preclearance requirement, arguing it's based on a racial climate that no longer exists in the state — an assertion Abrams challenged, saying, "Georgia continues to evidence examples of that, not the least of which we believe are the current maps they are submitting, which re-segregate the state of Georgia, polarize communities of color and isolate them into enclaves."
Questioning the state's ability to draw fair political districts while it was also challenging the rules for creating them, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and other groups asked the federal courts to reject the maps. "I'm concerned about minority votes. I'm concerned about dilution of votes. I'm concerned about coalition districts. I'm concerned about all of those things from this power grab by those in power today," Democratic State Sen. Emanuel Jones, the head of the Black Caucus, said at the time.
But on Dec. 23, 2011, the Obama DOJ under Attorney General Eric Holder approved the maps under the Voting Rights Act. It was the first time in Georgia history that all of the state's maps, for state House and Senate as well as Congress, were approved on first review. Another challenge to the preclearance requirement filed in federal court that same year, from Alabama, would eventually end up at U.S. Supreme Court, whose 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision effectively ended preclearance — including review of Republican-drawn voting maps.
Skewing the map
Following the 2012 elections based on Georgia's newly drawn maps, the Republican Party as predicted gained a seat in the state's congressional delegation, giving the GOP an 8-6 edge. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who had been drawn into the state's new 14th Congressional District from his former seat in the 9th, faced no primary opponent and went on to crush Democratic challenger Daniel Grant in the general election by 72-27.
Every election since then in Georgia's 14th has been at least that lopsided. In 2014, after defeating a primary challenger with over 74% of the vote, Graves went on to win without any opposition in the general election. In 2016, the same year the Trump would carry the district by 53 points, Graves defeated two primary challengers with over 75% of the vote and then routed a write-in candidate in the general. Graves attracted two primary challengers in 2018, but both quit the race before Election Day. That November, Graves went on to defeat a Democrat who during the race was convicted of driving under the influence and sentenced to six months in prison. Graves captured over 76% of the vote that cycle. The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index rates the 14th as R+27, meaning it's far more Republican than the national average.
But there's statistical evidence that the outcomes of elections in the 14th — and Georgia's congressional districts overall — don't honestly reflect the electorate's preferences. A 2017 report titled "Extreme Maps" by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, examined data from the 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles to identify states where the manipulation of district lines gave the map-drawing party a share of seats "grossly at odds" with statewide election results. The report found that the decade's congressional maps were biased in favor of Republicans nationwide, with North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania showing the most extreme levels of partisan bias, followed by Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. It also found that Georgia, along with Tennessee and Wisconsin, showed statistically significant GOP skews during that period. In fact, Georgia's gerrymandered congressional races had become so uncompetitive that the San Francisco-based political startup Crowdpac used the state as its poster child for the detrimental effects of hyper-partisan redistricting by launching a national campaign there in 2017 urging citizens to consider challenging their local congressperson using the company's crowdfunding website.
In December 2019, Graves announced that he would not run for Congress again, and he stepped down early the following October. His retirement led to a crush of candidates entering the 2020 Republican primary for the 14th District seat — nine in all who qualified for the ballot. The top two finishers in the June primary were Greene, a commercial construction firm owner with a business degree from the University of Georgia, who won the most votes at 43,892 (40.3%), and neurosurgeon John Cowan, who got 22,862 votes (21%). Both describe themselves as pro-Trump Republicans, but Cowan does not share Greene's extreme views and embrace of conspiracy theories.
Cowan grew up on a cattle farm in Northwest Georgia, but Greene is not a longtime resident of the district. When she first considered a congressional run, she was living north of Atlanta in Alpharetta — the 6th District, where she planned to challenge U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in the GOP primary. But supporters of Greene — including members of the secretive, far-right House Freedom Caucus, whose 48 known members include 27 representing Southern states — reportedly convinced her to relocate to Georgia's 14th and run for the open seat. The Caucus's House Freedom Fund also supported her campaign, which was primarily self-funded.
Though Cowan — whose slogan was "all the conservative, none of the embarrassment" — won hundreds of endorsements from leaders in the 14th District and support from organizations that don't generally get involved in primary races, he lost by 57-43 in a year when the GOP's conservative base was fired up by angry rhetoric from President Trump and other extremist leaders about pandemic restrictions and Black Lives Matter protests. Cowan recently told Fox 5 Atlanta that Greene's "great endorsements" from U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows, the former North Carolina congressman who went on to serve as Trump's chief of staff, "carried a lot of weight." Both are former House Freedom Caucus leaders. Trump hailed Greene's primary win in a tweet, calling her a "future Republican Star" who's "strong on everything."
On the Democratic side, the 2020 primary's unchallenged winner was Kevin Van Ausdal, an IT specialist and political novice who said he wanted "to bring civility back to Washington." At one point during the campaign, rattled by Greene's violent rhetoric and support from white supremacists and other extremists, Van Ausdal reportedly texted to his wife that he was "breaking down"; soon after, she asked for a divorce, and he had to move out. Within days Van Ausdal quit the race and returned to his home state of Indiana. By then, the window had closed for Democrats to find an alternative, as Georgia law says a candidate who withdraws fewer than 60 days before the election cannot be replaced on the ballot. That November, Van Ausdal still received a quarter of the vote despite having quit, and Greene was on her way to Washington.
Gerrymander Greene out?
In the round of redistricting set to get underway later this year, an unprecedented number of states nationwide will be drawing maps under new rules designed to reduce the potential for extreme partisan gerrymandering. Among them is Virginia, whose voters this past November approved a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan redistricting commission in order to avoid hyper-partisan gerrymandering of the state's legislative and congressional districts. To date, four states have adopted such bipartisan politician-appointed commissions for drawing political maps, while 11 other states have adopted independent redistricting commissions. Virginia, currently controlled by a Democratic trifecta, is the only Southern state so far to move in this direction.
But a report released this week by the Brennan Center finds that Georgia and three other Southern states — Florida, North Carolina, and Texas — remain at very high risk for extreme partisan gerrymandering due to who's drawing the maps, shifts in the legal landscape, and rapid demographic change that's threatening the political status quo. Three other states — Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina — are at high risk.
In Georgia, using the courts to challenge gerrymandering has long been complicated by the state constitution, which offers few specifics about voting rights or the characteristics of voting districts, and more recently by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2019 ruling in the North Carolina case Common Cause v. Rucho, which held that partisan gerrymandering is a political question the courts can't answer. Fair district advocates haven't had much luck in Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature, either. Last year, for example, a group of Democratic state senators introduced a resolution proposing to amend Georgia's constitution to create an independent redistricting commission; the measure was referred to the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, where the GOP leadership did not allow it to budge. The resolution, known as the Democracy Act, has been introduced again this year; it would also create an online portal to help citizens submit ideas for the maps. It's being promoted by pro-democracy groups including Common Cause and the ACLU.
"We commend resolution sponsors for making strides to reform Georgia's redistricting process," said Gigi Pedraza, executive director of Latino Community Fund Georgia, part of the Georgia Redistricting Alliance that's advocating for fairness and transparency in the map-drawing process. "Much work lies ahead to have meaningful and transformative changes that will ensure our communities are truly represented.
Because gerrymandering creates noncompetitive districts, many of the Georgia legislators who will be drawing the new maps got their positions without facing competition from the other major party. In 2016, Georgia's legislative races were deemed the least competitive nationwide, with 81% of legislative seats going uncontested as a result of partisan gerrymandering. In 2018, even with those same maps in place, Georgia Democrats and allied groups undertook a massive organizing effort and managed to flip 13 state House seats. To capture the state House in 2020 they needed to win another 16 seats but managed to flip only two — despite the efforts of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which targeted Georgia and 13 other states with the goal of depriving Republicans of their trifectas. And it wasn't just Georgia where Democrats' hopes of gains ahead of redistricting were dashed: A post-election analysis by Facing South found that, despite Democrats taking the presidency and U.S. Senate, the GOP gained at least 48 seats in Southern legislatures in 2020 and held majorities in all of the region's legislative chambers outside of Virginia. In Georgia, Republicans now control the state House by 103-76 and the Senate by 34-22.
The new round of redistricting is set to begin later this year after the federal government sends the 2020 census data to the states. While the Census Bureau initially intended to make the information available by April 1, it's now saying the data may not be released before July 31 due to delays related to the pandemic and other disasters. In Georgia, a partnership created last year between the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts Georgia and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project will provide analysis and information in hopes of helping the state's lawmakers draw fairer districts.
Georgia is not among the states expected to gain a congressional seat this year, so the legislature will not have to draw a new district. However, an idea has been floated that puts forth congressional redistricting as a solution to the problems Greene presents. Henry Olsen, a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has suggested the Georgia GOP gerrymander her out of the seat. He's calling for lawmakers to break up the 14th and put parts of it in new districts where other GOP incumbents have represented more of the voters, thus giving them an edge in a primary race against Greene.
"This approach contains a fair bit of risk," Olsen noted, "but it's likely to be less risky than any other option."