By Karuna Ramachandran, Director of Statewide Partnerships with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta.
Do you know that for every person who does not fill out the 2020 Census, we stand to lose at least $1,600 every year over the next 10 years? So if 1 person goes uncounted in the 2020 Census, that could add up to $16,000. What if hundreds or thousands in our community don’t get counted?
According to the 2010 Census, Georgia received nearly $24 billion through 55 federal spending programs in 2016. Never before has this funding been more critical for Georgians, as the state legislature just approved a state budget that represents the largest cuts to state spending since the worst year of the Great Recession. The 2020 Census will impact the allocation of government funds for vital services like access to emergency services, housing for growing communities, State Children’s Health Insurance Plans, Medicare, and so much more. During a global pandemic, we need more money for healthcare, not less.
And yet, the Trump Administration instructed the U.S. Census Bureau to complete the 2020 Census activities a month early — by September 30, 2020. This is a direct attack on immigrant communities and communities of color, who stand to be under-counted in the decennial census. At a time when our state is most vulnerable, our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to ensure more people are counted, not less.
Decennial census data – the census data that is collected every 10 years – is also used for a process called reapportionment, where the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives is split up among all the states, based on state population size. After the 2010 census Georgia gained a seat in the US House of Representatives.
Decennial census data is also used for redistricting, the processes by which our state legislature redraws voting district boundaries so that the populations within these districts are fairly equal in number. Redistricting enacts the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote”, which aims to ensure that each of our voices can be represented equally, by creating districts that have the same, or nearly the same number of people in it. Redistricting applies to all levels of government where district elections are held, including U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, city councils, school boards, county boards, and more.
In Georgia, AAPIs are among the fastest growing ethnic and racial minority. Gwinnett County alone is home to one of the largest AAPI communities in the Southeast, with approximately 12.5% Asian American residents. AAPI voters are also the fastest growing electorate in the United States meaning that more and more U.S. voters are AAPI. So it follows that our communities are building power and potential to have the representation in government that we want. Elected officials should recognize the growing political power of Asian-American communities and should be more responsive to our needs. Yet, despite our growing populations, Asian-Americans in Georgia remain underrepresented and underserved.
All too often our communities need to address issues of voter suppression instead of voter empowerment. Gerrymandering is the worst form of voter suppression that you can find. Gerrymandering is the abuse of redistricting processes for political gain, usually to benefit incumbents. Through gerrymandering, political parties manipulate district lines to impact the results of an election and it can affect the actual power our communities’ have to elect a candidate of choice.
How does gerrymandering work? Well, let’s say I’m running for re-election. But since the time when I was elected to office, some people who voted for me have moved out of my district while others, who don’t seem like they would vote for me, moved in. If I want to ensure that I win my seat again, I can work with my political colleagues to draw new district lines that cut out those new voters while bringing in voters that I can be sure will vote for me when it’s time for my re-election.
I am not running for office, but we do see examples of this kind of gerrymandering in Georgia time and again. Take Henry county, for example. In 2017, with HB 515, the Georgia legislature attempted to change House District 111 to protect incumbent Brian Strickland. The proposed plan would have removed minority voters while bringing in white voters. HB 515 did not pass and Strickland resigned from his seat to run for GA Senate District 17, which he won. Henry County is a majority-minority county, by the way, with approximately 60% of its population being Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, including AAPI.
Georgia advocates are fighting for redistricting reform that can help put a stop to these kinds of shady, back-room deals. We believe that fair and equitable redistricting is transparent and centers those communities that have been historically disenfranchised. With better representation, our communities are better positioned to seek changes that will positively impact us. For example, if we want to see systemic changes to our schools, our healthcare systems, our criminal justice system or to environmental policies, we need elected officials that will stand with us in our values, rather than seek to protect their own self interests. But if our communities are gerrymandered to take away our voting power, then we don’t stand a chance to elect a candidate of choice.
Transparent redistricting regulations would require the Georgia legislature to share redistricting proposals to the public, solicit public input for plans and incorporate changes. Sounds easy enough right? Wrong. The Georgia legislature has failed to pass such measures. So it is up to people like you and me to protect our communities from being further gerrymandered.
The census is not a partisan issue, and redistricting shouldn’t be either. So, this fall as we collectively head to the polls to show our voting power, let’s not forget that our action must not stop there. AAPI communities of Georgia must hold our elected officials accountable for fair, equitable, nonpartisan redistricting. We must stay vigilant in 2021 and the years that follow so that the power we have worked so hard to build, is not ripped away through gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression. We must demand the Georgia we deserve, no less.
Karuna Ramachandran is the Director of Statewide Partnerships with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta. She is a part of the Georgia Redistricting Alliance (GRA) – a coalition of organizations working towards fair, equitable, and transparent redistricting with a racial equity lens.