Census hints of political changes
Officials gearing up for redistricting later this year, from city councils to the legislature, will confront demographic changes that could alter Georgia’s political landscape.
A state attracting as many new residents as fast as Georgia is going to remain in flux. Migration is swelling the population far faster than births by natives.
While Georgia draws heavily from other Southeastern states for its newcomers, as shown by U.S. Census data released last week, the new arrivals are still new.
They tend to have higher incomes and better educations than the average Georgian. That bolsters the ranks of the Republican Party.
But they don’t know the candidates. They’re more likely to skip local elections held in off years, and when they do vote, they’ll rely more on party label and incumbency than any knowledge of the candidates, according to political consultant Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications.
They’re usually younger, and therefore more susceptible to negative campaign ads than older voters who’ve heard it all before.
Rountree works primarily with local and legislative candidates, and he’s grappled with the challenges of migrant voters. So he knows that decisions about which district to put the new subdivisions into carries some risk for policymakers.
Plus, not every newcomer is a conservative suburbanite.
“A lot of the growth is not Republican,” Rountree said.
Proof? Look at the narrow GOP margin last year in what was a national shellacking of Democrats. That’s why President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign considers Georgia a swing state.
In some areas, minorities are becoming a significant force, such as the Asian bloc that rose from 9 percent to 25 percent in a Gwinnett County legislative district currently represented by Republican Rep. Brooks Coleman.
Such demographic shifts have profound policy implications. Not only are voters eager to elect candidates who look like them, they also push different priorities.
For example, the logic that sways them isn’t the same as the establishment politicians.
Warnings from a Chamber of Commerce about burdens on employers hold little sway with some emerging voting blocs because they are listening to different constituencies.
Even their personal styles are new. For instance, Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, acknowledges that as a black, she is accustomed to more volume and animation in her conversations than her white colleagues.
“I talk loud. People think because the way I talk that I’m argumentative. That’s just the way I talk,” she said. “That’s my tone. That doesn’t make me angry.”
Another demographic gaining stature in some parts of Georgia came here to retire. Some moved from other states or other parts of Georgia, and a considerable number moved from the Upper Midwest by way of Florida.
Called “half backs,” these northerners tried Florida for a few years and grew tired of the expense, traffic, storms and sand but didn’t want to return all the way back to the winters of their original homes.
Retirees present a different challenge for redistricting, notes Doug Bachtel, demographer at the University of Georgia.
“They tend to vote against things because they want to leave everything exactly as they found it,” he said.
Whether the retiree voters are consolidated into one district or disbursed and diluted will have an impact on elections to come.
Lower-income people move, too. Only they’re moving across town, according to the Census figures.
Long moves are expensive, notes Bachtel. Moves are generally prompted by better jobs, which is why the people migrating from out of state tend to have higher incomes.
Those making local moves are often seeking to save a few bucks on monthly rent, meaning they’re rarely trading up in economic status, he said.
Their lack of stability weakens their potential political impact. So putting a neighborhood of transients into one district versus another has various implications for incumbents and challengers in future elections.
Over the remaining two months before the legislature convenes in special session to begin the redistricting process, you can bet that the demographics in the new census data will be studied as carefully as the maps on where people live. Who the voters are is as important as how many there are.
“There is probably no greater determinant of political majorities than demographics,” Rountree said.
So, the hearings around the state going on now by the joint redistricting committee is demonstrating legislators’ willingness to hear from the people. Yet, much of the decisions will actually be based on these demographic spreadsheets.
Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.
Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service