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New Georgians present redistricting challenges

ATLANTA --- 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.

Though 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 knowledge of the candidates, political consultant Mark Rountree of Landmark Communications says.

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 has grappled with the challenges of migrant voters. So he knows that decisions about where to put new subdivisions carry some risk for policymakers.

And 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 Obama's re-election campaign considers Georgia a swing state.

In some areas, minorities, such as the Asian bloc that rose from 9 percent to 25 percent in one Gwinnett County legislative district, are becoming a significant force.

Such demographic shifts have profound policy implications. Not only are voters eager to elect candidates who look like them, but they also push different priorities. For example, the logic that sways them isn't always that of the establishment politicians.

Even their personal styles are new. For instance, Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, acknowledges that as a black she is accustomed to volume and animation in her conversations.

"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 to the state 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 go back to the winters they fled south to escape.

Retirees present a different challenge for redistricting, notes University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel.

"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 dispersed 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, he said. Their lack of stability weakens their potential political impact. So putting a neighborhood of transients into one district vs. another has 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 joint redistricting committee's hearings going on around the state now are demonstrating legislators' willingness to hear from the people. Yet many of the decisions will actually be based on these demographic spreadsheets.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at walter.jones @morris.com or (404) 589-8424.



Web posted on Thursday, June 02, 2011













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