Despite Redistricting, Georgians Likely Won’t See a Big Difference at the Polls

Along with legislating, another important event took place this month under the Gold Dome: qualifying for various elections on this fall’s ballot.

This year’s list of candidates for the General Assembly is particularly interesting, coming as it does after the decennial exercise known as redistricting. There’s the usual intrigue about whose districts changed in which ways – and who got squeezed out. There also are accusations of partisan gerrymandering; the lawsuits are already under way.

The courts will sort out those accusations. And we won’t see until November whether the districts are competitive between Republicans and Democrats. But one proxy for whether the districts are drawn fairly is the number of them that attracted candidates from more than one party – or more than one candidate at all.

Yes, other factors come into play. A strong incumbent may scare off opposition no matter how the district is drawn, just as a weak one may invite challengers. National trends as well as local politics inform those mulling a run. And of course, gerrymandering is hardly a new thing; it’s named after a man who signed the Declaration of Independence.

But, all things being equal, we could expect less competition after a brazenly partisan redistricting. So how does the field of play look, now that qualifying is over?

To evaluate this aspect of redistricting, I looked at two factors: the number of races in which only one party is fielding candidates, and the number of races in which only one candidate qualified at all. I compared the 2022 list of qualified candidates to the fields in 2012, the first statewide election after the previous round of redistricting (when, let’s note, courts upheld the maps), and in 2020, the last statewide election before this most recent round.

My hypothesis – recalling the aforementioned caveats – was that we should see less competition this year if the newly drawn maps are overly partisan. Here’s what I found.

In 2012, matters were so lopsided that we already knew Republicans would hold a majority in each chamber once qualifying ended. There were 28 Senate seats (out of 56) in which only a Republican qualified, and 91 such seats (out of 180) in the House. But there were also a number of seats contested only by Democrats. All told, more than three-quarters of state legislative seats that year (181 out of 236) featured candidates from only one of the major parties.

By 2020, the purpling of Georgia had brought that number down considerably, to just 121. As just one sign of the times, Democrats won a trio of Gwinnett County seats that eight years earlier they hadn’t even contested.

This year? There are 122 seats that lack partisan competition, just one more than in the last cycle.
Now let’s look at seats which lack any competition whatsoever: seats for which only a single candidate, regardless of party, qualified to run. This metric may be more dependent than the other one on other factors, such as the characteristics and perceived strength of the incumbent. But it’s worth checking to see if it’s in line with the decline with the change in partisan competition.

In 2012, there were 125 such seats – more than half of the General Assembly.

By 2020, it was down to 84.

This year it has fallen to 70.

Does all of this mean Republicans didn’t use redistricting to their advantage one bit? No. Whereas Democrats held 57% of the single-party seats in the 2020 elections, the ratio in 2022 has flipped to the GOP’s favor. But the discrepancies between the parties aren’t as large as they were in 2012, and the likelihood of Republican lawmakers coasting to election insulated from partisan competition has fallen far more sharply than their overall numbers have.

The courts will rule on the legal merits of the new legislative maps. But it’s fair to say most Georgians won’t notice many changes when they go to the polls.

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