This week, Georgia’s revered civil rights icon and congressman U.S. Rep. John Lewis testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first congressional hearing after the Supreme Court’s decision last month striking down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In late June, the court voted 5 to 4 to abolish a requirement that all or parts of 15 states with a history of racial discrimination get Justice Department approval before changing election laws. The court ruled that the 40-year-old demographic data used to determine which states fall under the preclearance requirement was outdated and not reflective of societal changes.
The court’s decision drew criticism from many civil rights and Democratic groups. The Georgia Democratic Party leader called the decision "unfathomable."
"The Republican Majority in Georgia drew maps in 2012 that reduced Democratic voting performance," interim party Chairwoman Nikema Williams said in a news release. "Georgia is nearly 50 percent Democratic and they diminished our voting strength to 32 percent through gerrymandered maps. However, the Supreme Court ruling may backfire when Democrats across the state rally."
Had Georgia’s Democratic numbers in the state decreased by nearly a third? And if so, were gerrymandered maps to blame? We decided to follow the numbers.
We started by checking the 50 percent figure.
PolitiFact Georgia has previously examined a similar claim.
Tracking R’s and D’s in the Peach State is difficult because Georgia does not have partisan voter registration. Primaries are open to everyone regardless of party affiliation.
In the 2012 general election, about 53.3 percent of voters cast ballots for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, versus 45.5 percent for Democrat Barack Obama (a difference of 7.8 points). The point spread increased to 10 points in the 2010 gubernatorial race, but it narrowed to 5.2 points for the presidential race in the 2008 general election.
In a 2011 poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 38 percent of voters said they were Republicans, and 35 percent identified as Democrats.
A 2008 Pew Research Center poll reported similar voter statistics for Georgia: 32 percent identified as Republicans, and 31 percent as Democrats. A 2008 Gallup poll leaned more to the left with 45.4 percent of voters labeled Democrat or leaning Democratic, compared to 41.8 percent Republican or leaning that way.
So, polling data supports that part of Williams’ claim, but actual voting numbers differ.
We contacted the state Democratic Party’s spokeswoman, Liz Flowers, about the other parts of her boss’ statement.
Flowers said Williams’ 32 percent figure is based on the Democratic representation in the Georgia Legislature. By our count, there are 77 Democrats in the 236-member state General Assembly. Doing the math on those numbers works out to a 32 percent Democratic showing.
But is the 32 percent representation a product of "gerrymandered maps" as Williams claimed?
Georgia’s most recent redistricting was completed two years ago. Democrats argued that the Republican-controlled state Legislature had redrawn the districts to give the GOP an advantage, which is the definition of gerrymandering.
The redrawn maps pitted Democrat against Democrat in the 2012 elections, particularly in the metro Atlanta area, which substantially reduced Democratic representation, Flowers said.
But a review of legislative members in the session prior to redistricting showed about a 35 percent Democratic representation. So the 2011 redistricting seems to have caused a targeted, but not necessarily substantial, reduction in party counts.
And the Democratic numbers are probably not all due to redistricting, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, who has long studied Georgia’s voting trends.
"In our system where (a candidate) wins or loses a district outright, usually the majority party will get a bonus, more than its proportionate share of seats," he said. "This tends to be true no matter which party is in the majority.
"Even if you had an independent master draw up the (redistricting) plan, the majority party would still get more seats because of the way our system is set up," Bullock said.
And, when it comes to gerrymandering election maps, experts say the Democrats have done it too.
To sum up, Williams said that although Georgia is nearly 50 percent Democratic, the Republican majority reduced Democratic voting strength in the state Legislature to 32 percent through gerrymandered maps.
Polling data in which voters self-identify their party affiliation seems to support Williams’ 50 percent claim, although some actual voting numbers show large advantages in votes for Republican candidates.
The Democratic representation, taken at face value, is 32 percent, but placing the blame for that low representation on Republican-led redistricting is not totally fair. And besides, when Democrats are in control, they do it too, experts said.
Williams’ claim contains some truth, but it leaves out significant context that might give the reader a different impression.
We rated the claim Half True.