ATLANTA — A newly designed map for state legislative districts in Hall County easily passed a key committee Tuesday, a promising decision for those wishing to reduce the dilution of the county's power in the state House.
The proposed map now heads to the House Rules Committee, which will decide if the proposal ever makes it to a vote on the House floor.
The proposal, submitted by Reapportionment Committee Chairman Roger Lane, cuts the number of districts in Hall County back to four, three fewer than a map lawmakers drew for the county last June. Three of those four representatives would have districts that are wholly or mostly inside the county.
With the map approved last summer, four representatives were based in other counties and likely could have been elected without Hall County residents' support.
It was designed in a special session of the legislature as Georgia's lawmakers took on the once-a-decade task of redrawing voting districts to match census data.
Lane introduced the revisions in a bill last week. The bill also revises districts in Carroll and Haralson counties.
Committee members OK'd the bill but tacked on an amendment creating a backup plan if the U.S. Department of Justice does not preclear the changes by springtime qualifying for legislative elections.
Because of the state's history with minority populations, any changes to voting in Georgia must be approved by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, requested the amendment Tuesday, which would make the districts lawmakers approved last summer the stand-in for this year's election if the Justice Department hasn't responded to the changes by the time candidates qualify. The districts would go into effect by 2014.
The maps received little opposition, though a newly elected lawmaker from Habersham County, Rep. Terry Rogers, lamented they would result in the division of his county.
"It could chip away at that unity that's so important to us and may impact that morale," Rogers said.
And Rep. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Waycross who was drawn last year into a district with Camden County Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, told committee members it was unfair to redesign districts for Hall County without reconsidering the design of districts in Southeast Georgia.
Since last summer, Hatfield has been lobbying for a redesign of districts in his region. He's drawn a map that he said meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act without requiring him and Spencer to run against each other in the summer and keeps communities together.
Lane, chairman of the reapportionment committee, refused for the second time to consider Hatfield's amended map Tuesday, claiming the loss of population in South Georgia in the last 10 years forced the current design.
Hatfield, too, argued that the loss of population in the area created a need to keep communities with the same interests together more important.
Hatfield argued the loss of population created a need to keep communities with the same interests together.
"Isn't it important ... that we retain a voice in this legislature, that we retain our ability to speak up about issues that we're passionate about?" he asked.
The current map divides Ware County into three different districts, one of which stretches from Valdosta to coastal Camden County. Hatfield argued the current design will drown out the voices of interests in Waycross to those more powerful interests in Camden County and Valdosta.
"I know that you know in your heart of hearts that what's going on here is not fair," Hatfield said. "The people of my county ought not to be put into a situation like this."
He specifically called out Lane, of Darien, asking the committee chairman if he could allow what Hatfield called an unfair map in his "own backyard" to stay the same while taking the time to fix Hall's map much farther north.
"The truth is that Southeast Georgia lost four and a half seats ... we wound up with eight incumbents paired in Southeast and Southwest Georgia," Lane said. "We can't change those facts."
The changes Lane has proposed for Hall reduce what some lawmakers called a dilution of the county's voting strength in the state House.
The map approved last summer lumped East Hall voters in a district that was mostly made up of Banks and Stephens counties. It siphoned off some West Hall voters to a district that is largely composed of Lumpkin and Dawson counties. South Hall, too, was divided among two majority-Gwinnett County House districts.
Though lawmakers from Hall said they were fighting for the changes to the map, all voted in favor of it during a special session in August. Each said he had a promise from House leadership to revisit the maps in January.
Lane's proposal, released last week, keeps Hall's number of House delegates at four, cutting Hall voters out of the bigger districts in Banks, Stephens, Dawson and Lumpkin counties.
The proposed changes do leave some Hall voters in a district with Gwinnett voters, however.
Lane's map lumps some voters from Hall's Buford precinct (Roberts) and all those from the precincts at Chestnut Mountain Presbyterian Church, The Springs Community Church and Friendship Elementary School in a Gwinnett County district.
The district would be new and its seat would be filled in November's election.
The rest of South Hall's voters are included in districts drawn wholly in Hall.
Lane has proposed changing the North Hall district currently represented by Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, so that it would only include portions of Hall and White counties.
The map approved last summer included the northeastern portion of Forsyth County in that district.
If the map passes, the district Collins represents would also take in portions of East Hall, including Gillsville, and some voters from the Tadmore and Gainesville Masonic Lodge (Gainesville III) precincts. Collins is not seeking re-election to that seat and has launched a campaign for a new congressional seat in Georgia that is anchored in the county.
If the map passes the House, it will likely receive automatic approval from the state Senate.