The Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The Georgia House and Senate committees in charge of drawing new congressional and legislative district lines this year heard an earful Tuesday from activists calling for fairness in a process that is typically highly partisan.

“As communities become more diverse, it is critical that district maps reflect that,” Michelle Zuluaga of the group Latinos for Democracy, told lawmakers during the first of 11 public hearings to be held across the state this summer and fall. “We want maps that will unite our state, not divide our communities.”

The General Assembly draws new district boundaries every 10 years following the latest U.S. census to reflect population shifts that have occurred during the last decade. While redistricting usually takes place during the late summer or early fall, the process isn’t expected until later in the fall because the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the release of census data.

In Georgia, the party in control of the legislature historically has drawn maps giving it the best chance to maintain or build on its majorities. Democrats were in charge of redistricting through 2001, but in 2011 and again this year, Republicans are in the driver’s seat.

Lawmakers will approve new maps for Georgia’s 14 U.S. House districts, 180 state House districts and 56 Georgia Senate districts.

During Tuesday’s virtual hearing, several speakers argued that Georgia should take power over redistricting away from the General Assembly and put it in the hands of an independent commission, as has been done in some other states.

But more complained that the process thus far is lacking  transparency and, as a result, isn’t giving Georgia citizens an adequate opportunity for input.

“It is crucial to a fair and functioning democracy that the process not cut out public participation,” Rebecca DeHart, CEO of the nonprofit Fair Count, said during a news conference before the hearing sponsored by a coalition of progressive groups and fair districting advocates.

State Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler noted that Georgia has experienced significant demographic shifts since the 2011 redistricting, including a 40% increase in its Asian-American population, a 26% rise in Latinos and a 14% increase in the Black population.

“These maps must reflect the changing face of Georgia and the need for historically disenfranchised voters to have a voice,” said Butler, D-Stone Mountain.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, promised to keep the lines of communication open.

“We are committed to an open, redistricting process,” he said. “We want to hear from everyone.”

Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, chairman of the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee, announced that future hearings will be held in Atlanta, Albany, Augusta, Athens, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumming, Dalton and Macon.