Georgia teens become unlikely warriors in redistricting fight

At 13 years old, DJ Horton can’t vote or even drive a car, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a prominent voice in Georgia’s redistricting process.

The middle school student and aspiring politician from Gwinnett County testified at two redistricting hearings hosted by the state Legislature this year. This month, Rep. Derrick Jackson, a Democrat from Tyrone, Georgia, quoted him during floor remarks about the maps; Horton was also invited by his state senator earlier this month to speak at a committee hearing about proposed state Legislature maps.

“On behalf of future young Georgia voters across this state, I am asking you — in fact, I am begging you — to reconsider the redistricting maps that have been drawn,” he said at that hearing. “This is not a right or left issue; this is a right or wrong issue.”

Horton is one of the dozens of teenagers mobilizing and testifying in Georgia’s redistricting process this year, juggling finals and extracurriculars with special legislative sessions and injecting an unusual level of youth engagement into a typically wonky, insiders' political routine.

In the last few years, a surge of interest in redistricting has raised awareness about the effects of gerrymandering and propelled many states to revamp their map-drawing processes, prompting more young people to get involved around the country. Middle school students in New York created an algorithm for drawing maps, while North Carolina college students lobbied against the gerrymandering that split their campuses into multiple districts.

Youth voting also surged in the 2020 election and carried into the critical January runoffs in Georgia, where Democrats — fueled in part by young voters of color — were able to help flip two Senate seats in Georgia.

Horton got his start with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, a group of progressive students who have started training one another on how to engage in the state's redistricting process and tell compelling political stories.

Redistricting is a routine political process needed to readjust political representation to mirror population growth changes. In Georgia, state legislators in both parties have used redistricting to secure partisan advantage, drawing maps quickly and quietly. A decade ago, Republicans controlled the process and approved proposed maps out of the Legislature just days after releasing them. This year, however, lawmakers have worked to solicit more public input and hosted a series of public hearings around the state.

The coalition, which the students call GYJC, has trained at least 70 young people on how to get involved, hosting Zoom trainings aimed at preparing the students. In one training, group co-founder Alex Ames walked students through everything from how to identify as a community member (don’t mention a political party, do talk about volunteer work and what makes your community different than others), how to concisely make a pitch (write out the testimony, make sure it’s short) and how to make a compelling argument (offer evidence of harm).

Ames, a 19-year-old public policy major at Georgia Tech, said the group started working together in 2020, but officially formed as the GYJC in January with plans to focus in part on voting rights. It lobbied against the state's restrictive voting bill, Senate Bill 202, but started to gain momentum during the redistricting cycle, in part because much of the process took place during the summer break.

“It was actually much easier to get involved than during the normal legislative session. We didn’t have to skip school to testify. There were much more public input opportunities across the state,” Ames, who now serves as the group’s communications director, said in an interview. “That made it really easy for students who had all these frustrations with S.B. 202, which felt like it snuck on some people.”

She estimates that more than 40 have spoken up this summer and fall during the process. In the final hearing on Georgia’s maps Saturday, three of the 13 members of the public who testified were members of the coalition.

She said they regularly mobilize dozens of students, but their mailing lists reach "thousands."

“At the end of the day, redistricting is that linchpin,” said Julian Fortuna, a 19-year-old University of Georgia student and GYJC member leading some of the group’s redistricting efforts. “It’s whether you as a citizen are able to make your voice heard.”

Fortuna said he believes students are ready to engage on this issue because they are facing political issues every day.

“There is not an option for young people to look away from the political battles of our time," he said. "They are being forced on us, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s gun violence, whether it’s having a fully-funded public education.”

The students are progressive — some of them met phone-banking for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign — and engage and lobby on partisan issues with the group, but they urge people to steer clear of politics when engaging on redistricting.

"Gerrymandering is something that happens on both sides of the aisle, so framing it as a partisan issue is kind of my biggest ‘try not to do that," said Yana Batra, 17, a high school student who leads trainings on how to tell stories well. "The main thing that we try not to do is give people language, but more about equipping them to share the story that they already have."

Now that Georgia’s congressional and state legislative maps have been approved by the Legislature, some of the teens are turning their attention to local redistricting, attending school board meetings and engaging in the county-level office redistricting process.

Ken Lawler, chair of a nonpartisan redistricting advocacy group Fair Districts GA, said the young people's involvement in this year's redistricting cycle has been "a breath of fresh air."

“They realize that you can't get fair policies until you can elect a government that represents the people," he said. "And so they're working on the machinery because when the machinery doesn't work, you don't get what you need.”