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Drawing state's new district maps a messy task

Public hearing Tuesday begins arduous charge of setting new districts

POSTED: June 18, 2011 11:30 p.m.

Equal representation for an equal number of people. It doesn't seem like such a difficult concept.

But Georgia has famously failed before in its attempts to redraw boundaries for representation in the state legislature and U.S. Congress.

Now, as legislators prepare to attempt the feat again using numbers from the 2010 Census, constituents and watchdog groups are begging for something better.

"The bottom line is, people want fair and sensible districts to be drawn this time around," said Roger Lane, the chairman of the state House committee charged with redrawing Georgia's political boundaries.

But ideas of fair and sensible, state Rep. Ellis Black says, lie "in the eye of the beholder."

Black, a Republican from Clyattville, also serves on the House reapportionment committee. He has accepted that no matter what he does, he won't make everyone happy.

And if history has any say, he's right.

In 2001, the Democratically-led, highly-partisan process involved two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court and ended in a map that was drawn not by legislators — whom the court determined violated the constitutional principle of one person, one vote — but by an appointee of the court.

Ten years later, census calculations have awarded Georgia a 14th U.S. House seat and shown growth in some areas has far outpaced the rest of the state, calling for lawmakers to adjust the state's political boundaries accordingly.

Census numbers show that Georgia's 9th House District, which stretches west from Hall County to the northwest corner of the state, had one of the highest rates of growth from 2000 to 2010. Growth in the North Georgia district was second only to Georgia's 7th District, which includes the 9th District's neighboring counties of Gwinnett and Forsyth.

Officials have yet to release maps showing possible district changes, but Black said he has accepted that the decisions he makes in August's special legislative session won't make all of Georgia happy.

Political scientists and government watchdog groups also have little faith that this year's session won't come down to much more than partisan politics.

Still, the state's Republican leadership is committed to a transparent redistricting process.

"The public expects us to (draw) better districts and do it in a more open and transparent manner than was done in 2001," said Lane.

That's why Lane says he and other members of the state House and Senate reapportionment committees have spent the last three weeks traveling the state. they are making an effort at a transparent redistricting process that reflects constituents' desires.

Still neither Lane, Black nor state Rep. Tom Dickson, a Republican reapportionment committee member from Cohutta, will say what the new districts will look like, or if Hall County will be part of Georgia's newest House district.

While Lane won't dare say how the changes in the state's population will affect boundaries, common knowledge is that change "typically" happens "where the population increase is."

"You speculate that it would be where the greatest population growth has been," Lane said.

Dickson, whose state House district lies within the western boundaries of Georgia's 9th House District, also said a new congressional district that included Hall County "wouldn't surprise" him.

But neither legislator says he'll be prepared to discuss specifics with constituents at Tuesday's public hearing at Brenau University in Gainesville.

The point of the hearing, they say, is to listen.

And that's where William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, says groups like his and the League of Women Voters come in.

"Unfortunately, from the legislative end, there hasn't been a lot of information given," Perry said. "But they're holding these hearings and expecting people to come and testify about how the process should work and what districts should look like. But unfortunately people don't have a lot of information about the process, especially since it only occurs every 10 years."

Prior to Tuesday's public hearing, the two groups will hold a lunch discussion at Re-cess Gastropub in downtown Gainesville. Perry says it will be a bit of a crash course on the redistricting process.

The sessions, which Perry says the groups have held prior to all lawmakers' public hearings in the state in the past month, educates residents on how to give the "most helpful" testimony to give.

Tuesday night, residents will have three minutes to testify. Lawmakers say they'll use the information to shape their ideas on district lines. But Perry also says the testimonies could be used as evidence if the new boundaries are challenged in court and a court-appointed master is charged with redrawing the lines.

Perry's group advocates for state and congressional districts that look more like communities instead of bastions of partisan power.

"(Saying) ‘I'm a Democrat and I want to live in a Democratic district,' that doesn't help," Perry said. "What helps is talking about your city and county boundaries and the industry in your town or the things that kind of bind people together to make them a kind of community of interest."

But some would argue that communities are also defined by their ideology just as much as the demographic nature of their hometowns.

Forsyth County's Republican Party plans to caravan to Tuesday's public hearing in Gainesville to lobby lawmakers to keep their county together when redrawing the state's political districts.

"Forsyth County is Georgia's most heavy-leaning Republican county and we don't want to be divided," Brad Wilkins, the group's vice chairman said in a statement this week.

It's a request Black, Lane and Dickson all say they've heard most often.

Dickson said his goal is also to keep from splitting counties and cities, but he knows his limits.

"That's the goal," Dickson said. "You can't do that in every case. It's just physically impossible."
"When you start out in one corner of the state — and I don't care which corner you want to start at — if that county doesn't have enough people to make a whole district, then you've got to go over to the next county. And somewhere along the line, you're going to have to split a county to finish up to get the right number," said Black, who represents portions of Lowndes, Brooks, Thomas and Echols counties in South Georgia.

"Basically, in order to meet the dadgum demands of the court to provide one person one vote, that's what you're going to end up with. We don't have any choice about that."

And when you throw politics in the mix, this year's redistricting session could get "horribly messy," said Ross Alexander, a political scientist at North Georgia College and State University.

Alexander says redistricting has always been a painful process.

"Redistricting, reapportionment, gerrymandering — whatever you want to call it — has been a problem ever since we've had a census in 1790," he said. "The party that's in power tries to redraw the districts to strengthen their position and to marginalize the position of the other party. That's as old as American politics."

Already this year, Democrats cried foul over the Republican-led process when, back in February, Republicans ended a state contract with a nonpartisan think tank and set up a new legislative redistricting office guided by Republican lawyers.

Previously, the University of Georgia's nonpartisan Carl Vinson Institute of Government managed the state's redistricting process, a move some have said keeps lawmakers in line.

Putting nonpartisan commissions at the center of redistricting discussions deters "tendencies toward political excess," according to an article written by University of Georgia political scientist and redistricting expert Charles Bullock.

A task force commissioned by former Gov. Sonny Perdue also recommended that the process be taken out of party leaders' hands.

Republicans in charge of this year's process aren't so sure that's the case.

Black and Dickson argue that it doesn't matter who guides the redistricting process because lawmakers make the final decision.

And most of the employees who managed the process for the Carl Vinson Institute have been hired in the legislature's new office, a spokeswoman for the institute said Friday.

"We've heard (at previous public hearings) ‘we don't want district lines drawn like they were in 2000.' Well, who were the consultants in 2000?" Dickson said. "The reality is, it's not the consultants, it's the people who are doing the committees. It's the leadership."

And while Dickson said Republican leadership this year is committed to a fair and transparent process, Perry says it's almost impossible for lawmakers to redraw the lines without their own interests of re-election at heart.

Perry blames the partisanship of the state's current districts for the 2010 round of state Senate elections in which 33 of 56 seats were decided in a party primary because there was no opposition in November's general election.

"There's no greater example of the lack of balance in these districts along partisan lines. It's just shocking how heavily weighed it is," said Perry.

"It's unfortunate, because I don't think it makes either political party stronger, and it doesn't make sure that people's interests get represented."

He says Common Cause will continue to advocate for recommendations that redistricting be taken out of lawmakers hands because the current process invites lawmakers to draw districts for themselves.

But both Perry and Black agree that it's too late to try anything different this year, though Black said he would be open to discussing a new process in the future.

"It's futile to waste time talking about what could have been. We've got to deal with what is," Black said. And "what is" is not going to be pretty.

"I don't have any illusion that we're going to make everybody happy," said Black. "This is one of the meanest things the good Lord ever created."

 



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