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Posted: May 3, 2011 11:50 p.m.

Hope, cynicism at redistricting forum

Drawing district lines along common lifestyles or economic interests and having representation that mainly served one county were some of the wishes expressed by attendees at the League of Women Voters forum on redistricting Tuesday night.

Guest speakers that attended included Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the 2010 Census, William Perry, director of Common Cause, Nancy Abudu, senior staff and counsel for the southern regional office of the ACLU, District 43, state Sen. Ronald Ramsey, former District 17 state Sen. John Douglas – who was representing District 17 state Sen. Rick Jeffares, District 109 state Rep. Steve Davis, District 92 state Rep. Pam Stephenson, District 93 state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, District 94 state Sen. Dar’shun Kendrick, District 95 state Rep. Pam Dickerson. State Sen. Robert Brown of District 26 was scheduled to attend but had a death in the family.

Because of population changes, Georgia is slated to gain an additional Congressional seat. A few state House and Senate seats will likely shift from the southern, rural regions of the state to the northern regions, due to population shifts.

Former District 17 state Sen. John Douglas explained the ideal size for a state Senate district was about 173,000 people. District 17 has about 73,000 people too many, said Douglas. District 43 has about 177,000 people, said state Sen. Ronald Ramsey.

The ideal size for a state House district is about 53,000 people.

Legislators would likely start with redrawing Congressional districts, and House and  Senate districts would be redrawn at the same time, said District 92 state Rep. Pam Stephenson.

After the districts are redrawn, the maps are presented for approval by the Department of Justice, since Georgia is one of the states that falls under the Voting Rights Act.

Tracey-Ann Davis of the 2010 Census explained there are three main times to give public input on the redistricting process: before a joint committee in the General Assembly, during the official public town hall meetings/forums on redistricting held around the state by the General Assembly, and during the 60-day public comment period while the Department of Justice reviews district maps.

William Perry, director of Common Cause, said constituents were not being fully represented because so many districts were drawn to favor one side or the other. Last year, 54 of the 56 state senate races were non-competitive, where one candidate received 60 percent of the vote or more. Of those, 33 of those had no opposition running.

“These districts have been drawn according to party interests than people’s interests,” he said.

Of the more than 30 attendees, many expressed the view that the factor that motivated redistricting was preservation of incumbent power and questioned whether public opinion would change much. Others expressed desires to see redistricting done in a more ideal, representative way.

One of the few attendees from Newton County said the big counties and big powers usually got their way; he had seen examples where federal dollars slated for Newton and Walton counties had ended up going to transportation projects in Clayton instead.

Speakers also discussed the change from UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute to a private firm Troutman Sanders as the agent to redraw the lines according to legislative instructions.

Davis expressed approval of the change and said the redistricting maps that were thrown out by federal courts last time around were drawn by the Carl Vinson Institute. “Why keep doing the same thing?” he asked.

Perry said “We’ve removed a layer of transparency whether we’re happy with it or not.” He pointed out the Carl Vinson Institute was drawing the districts according to legislators’ instructions but that the Institute was at least subject to Open Records requirements. Members of the public could find out what those instructions were. However, a private firm was probably not subject to the same Open Records laws.

Attendee Don Meyers asked speakers if the Voting Rights Act protected white populations as well.

Nancy Abudu of the ACLU said “Although historically the Voting Rights Act is designed to protect minority voting strength, the definition of who falls within the category of minority has not been limited to African American voters.” She cited a case in Mississippi where federal courts found African American candidates were in violation of the Voting Rights Act for diluting the voting strength of white voters in redistricting.

Douglas, said he felt the Voting Rights Act was an anachronism. “In the 21st century, the Voting Rights Act itself is discriminatory… While there were errors in the past, discrimination in the past, most of that is gone now.”

 

 

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