Across the country, the once-a-decade mapmaking process known as redistricting is about to get underway.
In Georgia, when state lawmakers held their first virtual town hall seeking public feedback on the process, several commenters stood out amid the sea of Zoom squares. High school and college students — who were in elementary and middle school the last time voting district lines were drawn — took turns explaining how the mapmaking process will affect future generations and emphasizing that their voices should be heard.
"There are a quarter of a million [Asian American and Pacific Islander] voters in Georgia, yet they only make up 2% of the representation in the General Assembly," said Bedansh Pandey, a Northview High School student who is part of suburban Atlanta's growing Asian American population. He told lawmakers that 2020 was the first time his district was represented by someone who looked like him.
"That's why I ask that when drawing the districts of our state that will remain in place for the next decade, the diversity of our community is representative," Pandey said.
Sandy Park, another high school student passionate about Georgia politics, said she and her classmates are excited to vote once they turn 18, "but with the districts we live in divided so awkwardly, first-time voters like us have a hard time knowing which communities our representatives represent," she said. "So when young adults like us end up voting, our voices end up becoming silenced due to complicated shapes."
The "complicated shapes" of voting districts discourage first-time voters
Alex Ames, a student at Georgia Tech and head of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, said the complicated shapes of districts, especially on the state's college and university campuses, end up disenfranchising young voters and minimizing the power of a growing demographic. "From Kennesaw to Athens, our schools are divided so that even though our state had the largest youth turnout in America last year, our votes are worth less," she said.
In fact, Georgia Tech straddles two state House districts in midtown Atlanta. Live in one dorm at Berry College in northwest Georgia and you'll have a different representative than your friend across the street. And at the University of Georgia, students can walk through three different districts in between classes.
Redistricting expert and UGA professor Charles Bullock says that oftentimes when you see communities split like this, lawmakers view them as filler, "used to bring up populations and districts to meet the equal population standard but not concentrated."
One of the most egregious examples could be found in North Carolina when, in 2016, Republicans split North Carolina A&T — the country's largest historically Black college — in half, leaving a majority-minority community represented by two GOP congressmen.
"Where you find the community is badly split like that, it probably indicates that when those maps are being drawn, that community did not have a local individual who was serving in the legislature," Bullock said. "Or, at least did not have someone who was part of the majority party and therefore was unable to protect the local community," he said.
Youths want to be heard and want every voice to matter
In Georgia and around the country, a surge in younger turnout had a tangible impact in 2020, especially in flipping control of the U.S. Senate in Democrats' favor.
"We saw with the Georgia Senate runoffs, we powered those elections," said Christian Dent, who serves as Georgia's youth governor as part of a high school civics program.
Dent, a rising high school senior from south of Atlanta, traveled nearly two hours to a hearing last week to share his perspective. "We're changing the political landscape and I think we deserve to be heard," he said.
Alex Ames, the Georgia Tech student, said young voters aren't asking for a pat on the head for participating in the process, or even for special treatment once the lines are drawn.
"We're asking for small-d democratic treatment, which is that every vote and every person's voice should matter equally, even if they do live in a bubble that your party thinks is unfavorable to be giving a voice to," she said.
It's unclear how much impact the pressure from young activists will have, especially in a state that has added a million residents over the last decade and become one of the fiercest political battlegrounds.