State officials express redistricting concerns

Macon Telegraph, The (GA) - February 27, 2011

Elected officials from around the state gathered at Mercer University Saturday and prepared for what state Rep. David Lucas said would be a fight.

Lucas joined Rep. Calvin Smyre and Sen. Robert Brown on stage to discuss redistricting with attendees of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials conference.

"If you do not understand politics, youíre fixiní to get a rude awakening to real shoí ínuff politics in the state of Georgia," Lucas said, adding that he thinks redistricting will be a partisan process.

Both Lucas and Smyre have been through three reapportionment periods, so they said the procedure is nothing new to them.

"Reapportionment is one of the most difficult processes that has ever been created," Smyre said.

Itís an issue that pops up every 10 years when new district lines are drawn based on the latest U.S. census numbers.

"The real concern is what theyíre going to do about the minority voters, because minority voters can be manipulated by both parties,î Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, said after speaking during the session.

"The Republicans know the majority black district is a Democratic district, so they will either want to pack as many blacks as possible to minimize the number of those districts, or they will fragment the black population so they donít control any districts and the Republicans will control them,î he continued. "Democrats on the other hand want to disperse blacks as much as possible to maximize the number of Democratic controlled districts.

"The problem is, minorities are being manipulated by both parties and the only way to guard against that is Section 5.î

Georgia is one of a number of states bound by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allows the federal Department of Justice to oversee voting procedures in order to ensure that minority communities are not disadvantaged.

This year, Democrats are particularly upset with the creation of a new Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.

Representatives from the redistricting office were on site, trying to assure attendees that they will operate as a nonpartisan legislative services office.

"We wonít have a political or policy voice," said Jimmy McDonald, executive director of the office. "We'll simply draw what is presented to us. ...The biggest distinction is we are now within the General Assembly.

In previous years, district maps were drawn in partnership with the University of Georgiaís Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

After hearing McDonald address the crowd, Brown, the Senate minority leader, was still leery of the way the office was formed.

"They changed the structure of the reapportionment office quietly," Brown said, noting that the formation of the office and staffing was done entirely by Republicans. That office, created earlier this month, will also get legal advice from state Republican Party attorney Anne Lewis.

"Fundamentally it's a very partisan process,î he added later. "That partisanship has been carried to a height that it's never been before in the state."

When reached by telephone Saturday afternoon, Rep. Allen Peake, who represents part of Bibb County, said he thought statements that Democrats had been left out of the process were not valid claims, and said that drawing fair maps would be the goal.

"I know for a fact that what we want is fair maps, and that will be the clear objective as we go through this process,î said Peake, a Republican.

"The Democrats -- when they had it 10 years ago -- drew some of the most ridiculous maps weíve ever seen and finally the courts threw them out, so obviously those werenít fair maps," Peake said.

This year, he said, the focus will be "making sure itís something that is good and fair for the people of Georgia.

The redistricting fight went to federal court in 2000, and many expect this yearís process to end up there as well.

Lucas told attendees that "the only way you can perpetuate a fair plan is to have a diverse representation at the table.

He urged the elected officials in attendance to start putting voter registration drives together and paying attention to the dynamics of their districts. He also said they would have to raise money for legal fees and to hire separate demographers to draw their lines.

"Freedom ain't free," he said.