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Our Views: Battle lines soon to be drawn

Legislature can’t avoid putting politics in redistricting, but it would be ideal

POSTED: June 19, 2011 12:25 a.m.

The General Assembly is about to embark on a task undertaken every 10 years that is the political equivalent of cleaning the garage: messy, but important.

Following numbers from last year's U.S. Census, the process of redrawing lines for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislature and local governments would be difficult enough under the best of circumstances. But throw politics into the stew and it becomes nigh impossible.

And Georgia has one extra hurdle to overcome. Because of a history of segregation, the state must submit its new district maps to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval under the Voting Rights Act. Court challenges to the plan also are possible.

It's a combination of perils that would make Indiana Jones cringe.

Georgia's redistricting task is made more complex by the addition of a 14th seat in the U.S. House, a nice problem to have but one that means the old maps, however flawed, can't be merely warmed over and reused.

That new district could include portions of North Georgia, including Hall and Forsyth counties. Or it may be sliced off around metro Atlanta, where much of the state's population growth is centered. Wherever it fits in, it is going to mean that the other 13 districts all are likely to change in some way when the process is done.

And that process itself, as we've seen before, is the real problem.

To see how badly a redistricting session can go, we only need to look as far back as the last one following the 2000 census. Democrats were still in charge of the legislature and governor's office then, and proceeded to draw the most torturous, gerrymandered district maps in state history. The feds rejected the state Senate map, forcing the legislature to redraw it.

Meanwhile, the maps for the U.S. and state Houses were challenged in court. The state House plan was struck down, and when lawmakers were unable to agree upon a new map, the courts had to step in and take over. It wasn't until 2006, more than halfway through the decade, that Georgia's new district lines were finalized and applied in elections.

Democrats took the heat for their failure to produce effective lines, losing first the governor's mansion and then control of the legislature. Today, Republicans hold all state offices and both the state House and Senate. Now it's up to them to make sure Georgia doesn't go through the same litany of federal rejections and court challenges.

Easier said than done. As the Democrats found, even when you have one party firmly in power, the push and pull between various interests and officeholders is strong. Everyone wants to use the redrawing of districts to their advantage, to strengthen their political bases and eliminate folks who might vote for the other guys.

And unfortunately, that's likely what we will get: Districts that focus more on party and political purity that support bids by incumbents and make contested elections less likely.

In that sense, the Voting Rights Act winds up playing unwittingly into the hands of those who don't like a strong two-party system. The intent of the law was to make sure minority voters and candidates are fairly represented in each legislative body, and to avoid the kind of shenanigans that kept black voters away from the polls on Election Day.

But now, majority Republicans can use the law to their advantage. As others have noted, by making the handful of Democratic and minority-majority districts less diverse, it leaves more Republican voters for the new 14th seat and to be parceled out among the other incumbents' districts. That means fewer districts with a strong two-party presence.

The state's party split in the U.S. House is now 8-5 in the GOP's favor. You can bet a tidy sum that it won't change much, though Democrats Sanford Bishop and John Barrow remain vulnerable. When the new district is created, Republicans likely will hold at least a 9-5 edge, perhaps 10-4.

By purifying the districts into strong Republican or Democratic strongholds, lawmakers can ensure that few House members have to run hard to stay in office. That makes both parties happy, while likely meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and passing muster with the Justice Department and the courts.

But by catering to incumbents, it fails to give voters more choices and real contrasts between two or more competing philosophies of government. Such races produce strong debates and vigorous campaigns. That gets voters excited, increases turnout and boosts races up and down the ballot.

It's a given that the redistricting session is going to be partisan, and it's going to be messy. The only variable is to what degree of each we'll wind up with when those multicolored maps first begin to trickle out of the Capitol in mid-August.

Other states have taken politics out of the redistricting equation by appointing independent panels to draw the lines based on common voter demographics and interests. It's a great idea, but one that isn't likely to see the light of day in our state.

Given that, we'll take the best maps we can get. Legislators should at least balance what's best for the state's voters with what's best for their party and the job security of incumbents. We'd also like to see counties and precincts with common issues and needs grouped together when possible.

It would be great to have partisanship completely removed from the redistricting process, but for now we'll settle for half a loaf and something more viable than what the legislature produced a decade ago.

A public hearing on redistricting is set for 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at Brenau University's Hosch Theater in Gainesville. If you can, take the time to show up and let state officials know where local voters stand.



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