GOP IS GOING OUT OF ITS WAY TO PROVE IT'S NOT THE OTHER GUYS

Savannah Morning News (GA) - August 15, 2011
Author: WALTER C. JONES

Republican legislators are going to great lengths to demonstrate they're not like Democrats when it comes to redistricting.

The House and Senate issued press releases Friday afternoon that clearly had the same author that seeks to justify the revised legislative districts. And the chairwoman of the state party also issued a statement moments later praising them.

The legislative releases point out that fewer minority-party lawmakers were drawn into the same districts than 10 years ago when the Democrats revised the maps to reflect census figures. And both new maps split fewer counties than both the Democrats' maps and the one drawn by a federal court to replace the Democratic maps it invalidated.

Republicans also released their proposed maps before the special session convenes today, noting that Democrats only released theirs moments before legislative committees voted on them.

Ten years ago, the Democratic Party realized that trends were going against it. To try to prolong the GOP takeover, party operatives attempted to stretch the bounds of legal restrictions to produce maps where they could hold onto power.

Federal courts ruled their stretching went too far. And voters agreed, adding the gerrymandering to a growing list of indictments that eventually swamped Roy Barnes' hopes for re-election as governor in 2002, an election that also ousted other powerful Democrats, including Speaker Tom Murphy of Bremen and Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker of Augusta.

"We have learned the lessons of 2001 and created a plan that fairly represents the people, not one designed solely to achieve a political outcome," said current Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.

It's easier to heed that lesson when trends favor your party, notes Rep. Roger Lane, chairman of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee.

"It would be kind of foolish not to be magnanimous because the demographics are there," said Lane, R-Darien. "The courts drew the maps we have now, and Republicans have won."

Today's Democrats say the GOP goal may not be holding onto power but rather taking more. They accuse Republicans of manipulating the boundaries to gain the super majority needed to pass constitutional amendments without Democrats' votes.

House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, who happens to be black, said Republicans created more districts in which blacks are the majority to grab two-thirds of the seats.

"The artificial increase in majority-minority districts fails to help minority voters if they are shut out of power in a Republican super-majority," she said.

She knows as well as the Republicans that blacks reliably vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. So squeezing more into a district to make it majority black leaves the district they were in leaning more toward the GOP.

Republicans say they had no choice under the federal Voting Rights Act which prohibits "retrogression," the reduction in the number of "majority-minority" districts.

At least one expert agrees. Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor who was called to federal court as an expert witness by lawyers defending the Democrats' maps 10 years ago, says Abrams is misreading the law. Courts look at the number of majority-minority districts from the most recent census to calculate retrogression in minority districts, not compared to the previous set of maps as Abrams contents.

Some creative gerrymandering might have prevented Democrats from having to face each other in the same districts, Bullock notes, but it comes with the territory.

"If you're the minority party, you can't expect the majority party to go to these extremes to save your members," he said.

Besides the Democrats paired in the same districts, many more may have been left in areas that tilt toward GOP voters. Abrams can't predict how many because she hadn't had time to digest the district demographics and voting history that Republicans surely used in deciding where the lines went.

The group Common Cause blasted the proposed maps for splitting up counties, they say, for partisan advantage. Rockdale County, the second smallest geographically in the state, sent representatives pleading to be kept wholly in one district at the public hearings held by the legislative committees. It wound up sliced six ways in the map released Friday.

It's probably unreasonable to expect partisan politicians to behave in a non-partisan way. Common Cause wants to remedy the situation with a citizens committee to run redistricting as was proposed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue an idea that promptly died in the General Assembly.

What we have instead is bipartisan committees in the House and Senate. They'll begin this week holding hearings on the proposed maps. They may get so much static that they'll wish they had kept the maps under wraps until the vote, like the Democrats did.