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Wednesday, May 18, 2011 - 10:44am

Watchdogs Warn of Gerrymandering

Government watchdogs are urging lawmakers not to draw legislative maps solely to create safe seats for sitting legislators. Their comments come as redistricting meetings continue across the state.

Legislators are getting public comments on how to redraw legislative districts. Every ten years, states have to adjust political districts to reflect population shifts.

But lawmakers also bring political power into the process.

Speaking at the Atlanta Press Club, William Perry of Common Cause Georgia said safe districts packed with voters of one party give opponents little chance of winning. And there are quite a few of them already.

“In the November general election in 2010, if you look at the state Senate, there were 54 out of 56 districts that were not competitive," he said following a panel discussion on districting. "When you take that number 54, thirty-three of those elections had no opposition so one party or the other had a clear shot at winning the general election.”

Legislators will hold a special redistricting session in August. Residents can give their input on the process at 12 public meetings statewide, but maps likely won't be available until the special session.

The next meetings are in Savannah on May 18, then Albany on May 23 and Valdosta on May 24.

Residents at the Athens meeting on Monday expressed concern about how the district was divided during the last redistricting process. People who live in the city of Athens said they don't want to be in the same district as voters from rural parts of the area because their concerns are different.

"Take zoning and land use," said Jim Gaudin, a retired professor at the University of Georgia and an Athens resident. "That's not something rural residents think about. But it's important to us."

Many residents said the area, which leans heavily to the left but has no Democratic state representatives or senators, was carved up for political reasons.

Partisanship has already tainted this round of redistrictings. Questions remain over the Republican leadership’s decision to create a new redistricting office. Previously, an independent institute at the University of Georgia oversaw redistricting. The office is also using a law firm that has represented the Republican Party, and has also been involved in challenging aspects of the Voting Rights Act.

The League of Women Voters of Georgia says the change is worrying because it suggests the process may not be impartial.

House Committee Chairman Roger Lane of Darien, who is overseeing the public meetings, has said the new system will save costs by avoiding a long-term contract with the UGA institute.

Republicans have countered protests by saying that when Democrats were in control, they used their advantage when redrawing district maps. In a letter earlier this year to a Democratic lawmaker who complained about the process, Senator President Pro Tempore, Tommie Williams, a Lyons Republican, said that staff members of the Democratic Party had a hand in redrawing legislative maps after the last census was released.

He wrote that the Democratic Party oversaw the process "with no input from any member of the Republican minority at the time," according to the letter, which he sent in February.