March 28, 2004
New boundaries already under debate
By Brian Basinger
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – The ink is barely dry on Georgia’s new legislative district maps, but already lawmakers are debating how long these boundaries will last.
Some say the new plan, finalized by a federal court on Thursday, should be given a long shelf life in order to prevent confusion among voters and heartache among lawmakers, who see their political careers flash before their eyes each time the boundaries are tweaked.
”We’ve had enough of this,” Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, said Friday. ”It’s about as aggravating as the flag issue.”
However, others want the boundaries retooled as soon as possible.
Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Comer, is worried about the shape of the new District 47 in Northeast Georgia, where he will compete for re-election this fall.
”My district goes all the way from Elbert County to Loganville,” said Hudgens, who will now compete for votes in the suburbs of Atlanta, as well as communities near the South Carolina border. ”You just bust up communities of interest all along the way.”
Much of the drama surrounding the new maps stems from the fact that a non-partisan, independent team engineered the plan, instead of the legislature, which traditionally crafts its own plans for the House and the Senate.
A three-judge federal panel in February ruled the state’s former maps unconstitutional because they violated the one-person, one-vote principle by herding Republicans into as few districts as possible in order to maximize Democrat wins elsewhere.
Those maps were drawn in 2001 when Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion.
As a result, the court turned over the mapmaking task to a special master, retired 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Hatchett, whose final district plan is very different from the maps last used by voters statewide in 2002.
Dozens of incumbent lawmakers will have to run against each other for re-election under Hatchett’s plan, while voters will find themselves in brand-new districts.
Some lawmakers think Hatchett’s team failed to take into consideration local issues and concerns when drawing the maps.
”We can redraw some of the districts a lot better than what the special master drew,” said Hudgens, who serves on the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee.
Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, agreed.
”I just think it would have been more prudent for the legislature to take care of our own business,” Kemp said.
Still, it is widely believed thatlawmakers probably won’t seriously consider redrawing the maps until the 2004 elections have come and gone.
Both Democrats and Republicans are forecasting big wins for their parties under the new districts.
”I believe the House will remain a strong Democratic majority and the Senate will be a toss-up,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee and vice-chairwoman of the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee.
Republican campaign strategist Mark Rountree forecast a different scenario under which the GOP would assume nearly total control of state government.
”I don’t see the Democrats holding a majority in the House,” said Rountree of the chamber were Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 108-71. ”Republicans are virtually assured 88 or 89 seats, and it’s possible they could get to 95.”
The GOP already is in control of the Senate, holding 30 of the 56 seats. Democrats originally won 30 seats in 2002, but lost four when party-switchers leaped ship to join the new power structure of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
No matter how the elections turn out, there’s likely to be little enthusiasm for major changes in the maps, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist and former paid redistricting consultant for the Democratic Party of Georgia.
”If you get elected under a certain map, you tend to see some merit to it,” Bullock said. ”I would be surprised to see a more major redrawing of these maps. I would think we would see most of these districts used for quite a while.”
House Minority Whip Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, has a similar perspective.
”I would say they would probably be around for a while,” he said. ”I don’t think you’d see a wholesale move to change.”
Oliver pointed out that state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a Democrat, is still actively pursuing an appeal of the federal court’s decision to throw out the 2002 maps.
However, Oliver, a lawyer, said she believes it is unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the appeal in time for new maps to be drawn for the 2004 elections.
”There’s a small chance that the Supreme Court would respond to the appeal before fall,” Oliver said Friday. ”If the appeal is granted, we will, of course, return to the maps prior to the Feb. 10 order.
”If the appeal is denied, I think these maps will stay with us and be good through 2011,” she said, referring to the next year when the legislature would be required to redraw its district maps to reflect the U.S. Census.
In the meantime, lawmakers may consider fine-tuning the maps to reunite precincts and counties split by the new boundaries, a process that occurs to a small extent during every legislative session.
”You can redraw the lines anytime the General Assembly is in session,” Hudgens said. ”There are tweaks all the time.”
Bullock said that regardless of which party prevails this fall, the voters of Georgia will be the big winners because the court-drawn districts are much more compact and unified than the former maps.
”If you were in a district that rambled and sprawled across the state, it was hard to get the attention of your legislator,” Bullock said.