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Reversing political roles doesn 't change script of redistricting
Jones on Georgia



Republicans and Democrats might have swapped places during this year's redistricting, but the complaints of unfairness, railroading, partisanship and abuse of the law are the same even as they come from a different side of the aisle this time.

The role reversal resulted from the GOP gaining the majority in the Legislature and control of every statewide office, despite Democrats' best efforts to design maps to thwart Republicans when they were holding all the power. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans control redistricting.

After 1965, Georgia's new district boundaries required federal assurance that black voting strength isn't weakened under the Voting Rights Act. This is the first time since '65 when a Democratic administration has directed the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ten years ago, when Democrats ran Georgia, they didn't trust the Republican Justice Department of President Bush, so they submitted the maps to a federal court instead. Georgia Republicans still sued and won.

Democrats are taking on the role of litigators, too. In fact, all of the maps the Georgia General Assembly has produced since falling under the Voting Rights Act have wound up in litigation, and no one expects the latest versions to be different.

"It's very obvious they're going to take us to court," said Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, a Sharpsburg Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee.

The comments of the various Democrats and the GOP responses made it clear to everyone listening that both sides had been briefed by lawyers on what to say and not say.

During the debate, as the Democrats laid the foundation for their own legal challenge, two main arguments emerged: crossover districts and local delegations.

First, they argued that what they called crossover districts were diminished. Republicans repeatedly said they didn't recognize the concept and that no court had either.

A crossover district, the Democrats said, is one in which black, Asian and Hispanic voters constitute a sizable minority so that they can form a coalition with liberal whites to elect a candidate of their choice.

Republicans continually replied that the courts have only required maintaining the number of districts in which an ethnic or racial minority outnumbered the whites, so-called majority-minority districts.

Seabaugh and Rep. Roger Lane, the Republican chairman of the House redistricting committee, kept bragging that their maps maintained the same number of majority-minority districts that had developed over the years since the previous maps were drawn, resulting in a net increase over those previous maps.

The Democrats' second avenue for a court challenge may require blazing an even more novel legal path, the dilution of local delegations.

Seabaugh says it was an "innocent byproduct" of correcting the size of slow-growing Democratic districts that resulted in Republican districts crossing county lines to run fingers into Fulton, Bibb and other metro counties.

The counties in question have black majorities who elected mostly Democrats in their current legislative delegations.

The courts have always focused their attention on the number of individual majority-minority districts scattered across a state, not county delegations.

But legislation dealing with single cities or counties is determined by a majority vote of the local delegation, not the full General Assembly.

So, shifting those delegations to favor the GOP will impact what local legislation the city and county can get passed, even if Democrats clearly dominate those local governments.

To convince the court, Democrats are going to have to treat the delegation as a mini legislature and do the analysis to prove "retrogression" or the loss of voting power that blacks had gained.

Retrogression is a slippery enough concept to deal with when looking at individual districts because the courts haven't set specific standards, for instance, on what percentage of minority voters to shoot for.

While a state can get in trouble for reducing the number of districts where a minority holds more than 50 percent of the population, it can also run foul of federal law for packing too many minority voters into those districts to reduce their impact in neighboring, majority-white districts.

But the court hasn't said how many is too many.

So, getting judges to recognize the racial balance of delegations could require creative lawyers and leave future map makers with an added challenge during redistricting.

A looming court battle adds to the pall hanging over a process that's contentious enough anyway.

With any other legislative skirmish, the losers live to fight another day <0x2014> often in new coalitions with the previous victors.

The losers in redistricting instantly become lame ducks, hobbling through the remaining 18 months of their dying political careers.

That pits colleagues against one another, often from the same party.

"I'm extremely disappointed with this whole process," remarked Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta. "... Your friends change. That could leave a bitter taste in folks' mind."

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.



Web posted on Thursday, September 01, 2011













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