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Monday, June 13, 2011 - 6:15am

Resentment Returns With Redistricting

Updated: 3 years ago.
State officials are holding 12 public redistricting meetings around the state to gather feedback about how they should redraw legislative districts. Legislators have already held meetings in Athens, Augusta and Columbus (seen in photo). Additional meetings will be held this week in Macon and Stockbridge, and next week in Dalton and Gainesville.

Lawmakers will be gathering in August for a special session to re-draw legislative maps. High attendance at recent public hearings suggests voters are watching the process closely. Indeed, some Georgians are still simmering over how districts were drawn in the past.

While public meetings are often dry, that's not the case with the redistricting meetings. State officials began holding the meetings around the state last month.

At a recent hearing in Athens, about 150 people crowded into an old chapel near downtown. Lynn Irwin-Brown of Rockdale County rose to speak, and said the urban precincts of her district have drowned out the rural ones.

“We need a voice and we need to be heard now,” she said. “Please help us.”

At an Augusta meeting, Dave Barbee told legislators not to draw the oddly-shaped districts that emerged in other redistricting sessions.

“Fellows, you saw the old map,” he said to legislators. “To get to the 10th district, I had to drive through the 12th. There’s no sense in that.”

And then there’s partisanship, which Earl Cheal of Harris County brought up at a Columbus meeting.

“I’ve seen indications where the Republicans want to redistrict to make it more to their advantage and I disagree with that,” he said. “I think we need to do it independently so that it’s fair.”

And Cheal is a Republican. Fairness is critical because the stakes are so high.

Redistricting occurs each decade to reflect population shifts, and voters are typically stuck with their redrawn districts for ten years.

This year, the stakes are even higher.

Republicans are handling redistricting for the first time in the state’s history. And Georgia will gain a congressional seat because it added 1.5 million residents in the last decade.

Charles Bullock, a professor at the University of Georgia, says the state’s booming Northern half will gain representation in both the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress at the expense of Georgia’s Southern half.

“In South Georgia some counties have actually lost population, other areas have stagnated,” he said in a phone interview. “So we continue to see this migration of legislators. Now it will be particularly pronounced when we look at what happens with the statehouse and to some extent the state Senate. But the region south of the gnat line will lose probably at least one Senate seat, and maybe four or so house seats.”

With so much at stake, people are worried about gerrymandering.

Speaking at a redistricting event in Atlanta, William Perry of the watchdog group, Common Cause Georgia, said redrawing the maps has become a political power-grab.

“Districts are drawn for the parties. And that’s both parties,” he said after the meeting. “We’re not talking either/or. Certainly the party in charge gets more benefit and has more districts drawn to their favor but both parties are guilty of creating districts that are for party, not people.”

And once those districts are drawn, he said, it almost guarantees that they’re stacked in one party’s favor.

Politics aside, redrawing legislative maps isn’t easy. Lawmakers must draw districts to contain the same number of people.

In some cases, the rule leads to unnatural boundaries. And districts often combine disparate areas, with a representative who lives far from many of his or her constituents.

Speaking at the Columbus meeting, Linda Harp said she knows that will increasingly be the future for South Georgia.

“The population is not here, so our districts continue to get bigger and there are fewer districts in this part of the state,” she said.

Ultimately, politics is the biggest obstacle. Historically, Democrats often drew districts to shore up their majority.

Rep. Roger Lane chairs the House redistricting committee. The Darien Republican says the top complaint he hears is:

“’Don’t do it like it’s been done in the past,’” he said.

Lane says this year will be different.

“The public has had enough of the districts being treated as if they were our districts,” he said in a phone interview. “They’re the people’s districts and that’s how they are going to be drawn: for the people.”

Voters, however, have heard promises of neutrality before. Former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue created a redistricting taskforce. It recommended setting up a permanent independent commission to redraw legislative districts.

Bills to establish the commission have made it to the legislature. But state lawmakers have never scheduled a vote.

INFO: The public redistricting meetings continue this week, with events in Macon and Stockbridge.