Both the Morgan County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education unanimously passed a proposed map redrawing lines for all five of Morgan’s voting districts this week.
The new map, created in partnership with state officials, upholds District 1 as a minority-majority district, a controversial practice in general, but a decision that received unanimous support among all county commissioners and board of education members, both Republican and Democrat.
Redistricting is required by law every 10 years after the census is completed to ensure voting districts are as evenly split as possible by population to ensure fair representation. A minority-majority district is an electoral district in which the majority of the constituents are comprised of racial or ethnic minorities.
“This was a unanimous decision,” said County Manager Adam Mestres after the Morgan County Board of Commissioners voted on Tuesday, Nov. 2, to recommend approval of the redistricted map drawn up by state officials. “There are two independent bodies in Morgan County both agreeing to this. It’s not county government dictating the districts.”
“This is required by the state. It is not initiated by us,” said County Commissioner Ben Riden.
The school board also voted unanimously to recommend approval for the redistricted map on Monday, Nov. 8.
“The process was very smooth and congenial,” said Dr. Virgil Cole, superintendent of Morgan County Schools. “We appreciate the help of the State Reapportionment Office for drafting a map that garnered the support of our entire board.”
Both the county commissioners and board of education members believe keeping District 1 as a minority-majority district is the best way to ensure diverse representation in a county that is about 75 percent white. According to the 2020 Census Bureau data, Morgan County’s population is 75.2 percent white, 21.8 percent black, 3.2 percent Hispanic, and 1.6 percent identifying as two or more ethnicities/races.
County Commissioner Donald Harris, a Democrat, actually played a pivotal role in establishing District 1 as a minority-majority district back in the 1970s when he served on the Morgan County Branch of the NAACP.
“The way the districts were before, it was impossible to have any minority representation,” said Harris, who was elected to the county commission in 2008 during a special election. Today, Harris still supports having a minority-majority district due to lopsided demographics in the county.
“It’s not always a good thing to have, but I’m happy with it and thankful for it in Morgan County because it’s pretty much the only way for minorities to have representation here,” explained Harris.
If approved, District 1 will be comprised of a 53 percent minority population and a 39 percent white population.
Minority-majority districts have been heavily debated in recent years. Proponents argue that they are a necessary tool to ensure minority representation in areas where the racial and ethnic demographics are heavily skewed in favor of majority white populations. However, opponents point out that minority-majority districts have been exploited and used as a tool to disempower minority voters by cramming racial and ethnic minorities into a single district in areas where the racial divide is more evenly split.
“That’s not the case here,” said Mestres. “This is to ensure the possibility of a diverse county commissioner board in Morgan.”
While all the county commissioners and board of education members approve of the map proposed to be presented to the Georgia State Legislature for final approval, some local citizens and groups are objecting to the boards passing the map without holding a public hearing. Both the Morgan County Democrats and Morgan County GOP issued a statement on the matter.
“Morgan County Dems believe that the public confidence in elections is damaged when important policy decisions are made behind closed doors. Post-census redistricting created an opportunity for public input, and we call on the Commissioners to do better,” said Jeanne Dufort, vice chair of the Morgan County Democrats. “The districts as drawn reduce the likelihood of minority representation in all but one district.”
“I am disappointed we were not able to voice our concerns through a public hearing. I am still looking it over, but it looks gerrymandered to me,” said Chris Alexander, head of the Morgan County GOP. Alexander noted the Morgan County GOP and Morgan County Democrats are in rare agreement that a public hearing should have been held before a vote was taken. “I am not too different on this than our friends on the other side of the fence. We should all be concerned about this.”
Helen Butler, a former member of the Morgan County Board of Elections and Registration and current executive director The People’s Agenda, is reviewing the proposed map and is disappointed that a public hearing was not held before a vote.
“They should want voter input on this,” said Butler. “It’s for the benefit of the voters, not the benefit of the incumbents. They are not very transparent. They do not like having input as they should. Are the districts about them or about the voters?”
Butler’s voting rights organization is still reviewing the proposed map to decide whether or not they support the redistricting lines. Butler said she’s not necessarily against minority-majority districts but noted there are other ways to protect minority representation.
“You can still win without it, but we are still looking at all the factors,” said Butler. “If it’s not what we feel will provide the fairest districts, then we will present our own proposal. Because that’s what this is about, ensuring the fairest districts possible.”
According to Mestres, a public hearing was not necessary.
“There’s no legal requirement to have a separate public hearing on redistricting,” said Mestres. “We passed the resolution, there could have been an opportunity for public comment on any agenda item. It was advertised in advance.”
The new proposed map was designed around the new population numbers calculated in the 2020 Census, in which Morgan County’s population increased roughly by 12 percent in the last decade. In 2010, Morgan County’s total population was 17,868 people. In 2020, Morgan County’s population was calculated at 20,097 people. The task of redistricting came down to splitting the population as evenly as possible between the county’s five voting districts.
“The magic number was 4,019. We tried to get each district as close to 4,019 in population as we could,” explained Mestres.
None of the districts reach the ideal number, but they do come close.
District 1 will have 4,003 in population. District 2 will have 3,980 in population. District 3 will have 4,052 in population. District 4 will have 4,012 in population. District 5 will have 4,050.
While District 1 actually gains 11 in population, the district size shrinks geographically. District 4 will undergo the largest shift in population, losing 64 population under the newly drawn map. District 3 picks up 92 in population while District 2 picks up an additional 15 in population.
If the map is approved some Morgan County voters will have a change in voting precincts. According to Jennifer Doran, Morgan County’s elections director, all voters subject to precinct changes will be notified.
“In the coming months, there will be changes in precincts because of the line shifts,” said Doran. “We will be doing legal notice before the changes take effect.”