Lawmakers draw new maps atop political minefield

State lawmakers convene Monday to finish drawing the state’s new political maps, a once-in-a-decade exercise that has already generated political rancor and concerns about secrecy.

Redistricting is hugely important to elected officials, as a minor change in district lines can spell the difference between re-election and forced retirement. It is equally important to voters because it can increase their community’s influence or decrease it, depending how the lines are drawn.

It is also often highly partisan.

As the majority party in both chambers of the Legislature, Republicans are leading the process. They waited until Friday to release proposed drafts from Capitol offices whose interior windows were literally blacked out last week. By then, a ranking House Democrat had already accused GOP leaders of trying to purge her ranks. Republican leaders acted surprised that any such accusations could be made.

“Our desire is to have a very fair process,” Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said.

Watchdog groups, meanwhile, expected this week to unveil their own maps to propose how they believe the state’s legislative and congressional districts should be redrawn — sans politics — to represent Georgians in Congress and at the statehouse.

“There’s really only two things that guide how to draw the map: the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Kelli Persons of the League of Women Voters of Georgia. The league is part of the Georgia Redistricting Alliance and, with partners Common Cause Georgia and Georgia WAND, is hosting a map fair at 11 a.m. Monday at the Capitol.

“Past that, it goes to who’s in charge to draw the maps,” Persons said. “It opens it to wide interpretation, and people can see it as a means to an end for what they want.”

Redistricting is a process that follows another once-in-a-decade event: the release of population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The new census data is used to update or redraw congressional and state legislative districts. Georgia, for example, showed a big enough population increase that the state will gain a 14th congressional district. The new district will likely be in North Georgia, although its parameters have not yet been made public. Only proposed state legislative maps were made public Friday.

With Republicans in control, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, blasted the process. Abrams criticized Republican leaders for the proposed “pairing” of at least 12 House Democrats into six of the same districts — almost all of them in metro Atlanta. The 12 incumbents include both white Democrats and black Democrats, who will have to compete against each other to stay in office.

In other words, according to Abrams, state Republicans want to cram as many Democratic voters into as few districts as possible in an attempt to dilute their overall voting strength. It’s called “packing.”

It is a charge Republican House Speaker David Ralston denied.

Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to 10 years ago and beyond, when Democrats controlled state leadership and made their own deals. In 2001, the redistricting process led to a nearly two-year court battle. Many cited the Democrats’ strong-arming of the redistricting process for contributing to the Republicans’ takeover of state government in 2004.

“The first reapportionment I followed was 1981 ... and it was all done with pencil. You want to talk about backroom?” said state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs. “We didn’t whine and say we were left out of the process. We just assumed because the majority controlled the reapportionment process, that would happen.”

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia and an expert in redistricting, said districts that are underpopulated in the state are largely held by Democrats.

“Even if you had an independent commission draw districts, you’d probably see some Democratic districts combined or eliminated,” Bullock said.

Still, concerns remained — and not just from Democrats.

A major change in the process this year has seen Republican leaders in the House and Senate create a new joint office to handle the process of redrawing legislative district maps, ending an established pattern of using independent University of Georgia researchers for the work.

Overseeing the legal aspect of the new office’s work is Anne Lewis, an Atlanta attorney who is also the general counsel to the state GOP. Watchdogs cried foul over her appointment, although Lewis said there was no conflict.

“No, I don’t think it’s fair criticism,” Lewis said. “We’re definitely qualified to do the work.”

Additionally, the public had no access to the maps until Friday, when completed drafts were posted online. Individual lawmakers, too, were kept in the dark. Over the past several weeks, lawmakers were invited, one by one, to the Capitol complex, ushered into a room and allowed to look at their own district and perhaps a neighbor’s. They asked questions, perhaps pleaded for changes, handed the map back and departed.

Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, was in Georgia last week to ask state leaders to be more open about the process.

Although 12 public hearings were held statewide recently by a special redistricting committee, members mainly listened. No maps were offered for public consumption, nor were proposed district lines presented.

Republicans “have not been terribly forthcoming,” MacNamara said. “A lot of states have completed this process already and we are seeing retrogression. In Texas and North Carolina that’s certainly true. They can’t comply with the Voting Rights Act without gerrymandering.”

Gov. Nathan Deal said last week that the state would submit the maps for clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice, which can issue a ruling in as little as 60 days. Georgia is one of nine states that must get any change to election law approved by the federal government because of past discrimination against minorities.

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.

Redistricting maps:



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