Residents give opinions on redistricting process

Macon Telegraph, The (GA) - June 13, 2011

In a discussion about redistricting Monday evening at Mercer University, the conversation was relatively one-sided.

Local residents expressed their thoughts about what they think state lawmakers need to take into account as they prepare to redivide the state legislative seats and Georgiaís congressional districts, which generally has been a highly contentious and political process.

With about 60 people in attendance at the Macon meeting -- a good portion of whom were members of the Legislature -- people asked lawmakers to consider limiting districts to within county lines, to make the process transparent and to avoid making redistricting too partisan.

One resident suggested the Bibb County area should have one state senator instead of two. Another resident suggested that Bibb County have three state senators.

Residents each had three minutes to address the redistricting committee, made up of two state Senate members and three state representatives.

One woman told the committee that the new maps ìshouldnít be distorted by local or state politics.î But later, a woman from Jones County suggested that the committee ought to seek the input of the local elected officials already in place.

State Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, who serves as co-chairman of the combined Senate-House committee, said lawmakers must once again redraw the stateís 56 Senate and 180 House seats to reflect population shifts within Georgia. The state also will redraw the districts for the Public Service Commission.

In addition, Georgia showed enough population growth over the previous decade to earn an extra seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, meaning those district maps will be redrawn as well.

Some residents who attended Mondayís meeting were upset that population data and proposed maps werenít available for study and input.

ìThereís no maps, no data here to do an analysis with,î one Warner Robins man told the committee. ìWeíd like to know what you are thinking about before the maps come out.î

But Seabaugh said that by putting out proposed maps before the committee had conducted its 12 planned public-input sessions around the state, it might make Georgians less likely to participate if they think lawmakers already have their minds made up and a map already in place.

ìWe thought it would be unfair to have a map before we had heard all of the public comments,î he said. ìItís important for us to get these comments.î

The Macon session is one of 12 the state has been conducting since last month. All of them are taking place in major population centers across Georgia.

Former state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, who has resigned his seat to run for the state Senate seat vacated by Robert Brown, addressed the committee, criticizing its lack of a diverse makeup and for not making the sessions more accessible to rural voters.

The last time the state redistricted, the Democrats controlled the state Legislature. This time around, the House and Senate are both Republican-controlled. However, the stateís plan must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is controlled by a Democrat for the first time since the Voter Rights Act was created in 1965.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said she didnít see much of a point in the Monday session, since it wasnít a question-and-answer event.

ìThereís no feedback from the committee and no real information that is being given out,î she said. ìSo thereís no value. (The committee) is just listening. Iím thinking people must be disappointed. They donít know if their suggestions are going to be considered.î

State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, disagreed, saying the sessions provided lawmakers the chance to hear the real concerns of Georgiaís voters.

ìWe know the concerns of voters, so we can establish fair lines,î he said. ìThe committee is dealing with it in a fair and balanced way. People can get the representation they are entitled to.î

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the maps that had been drawn by the state Legislature in 2001, ruling them unconstitutional. The ruling upheld new maps that had been redrawn by a panel of three judges.

Seabaugh said the maps based on the 2010 census must be completed before next yearís general election.