Georgia considers redistricting reform

Republican Sonny Perdue railed at Democrats in 2002 for drawing new congressional and legislative lines that ignored county and even precinct boundaries in an all-out bid to maximize Democratic voting strength.

But once he got into office as Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, it was with his acquiescence that GOP legislative leaders went to court to reverse what the Democrats had done with the legislative maps and took it upon themselves to redraw congressional lines.

To the Republicans' credit, those efforts did result in fewer split counties and precincts and did away with many of the more contorted district shapes.

At the same time, however, they helped the GOP gain control of the Georgia House and keep power in the Senate. And the new congressional districts candidates will run in for the first time this year promise to maintain if not enhance the narrow majority of Georgia's U.S. House seats in Republican hands.

Now, as Perdue launches his own re-election bid, he has appointed a task force to consider whether the state should take the power of redistricting away from the General Assembly and give it to an independent commission.

"I think he has seen the best and worst in what's gone on in the Legislature on both sides of the aisle,'' said Sonny Deriso, a banker from Albany and one of the 11 business leaders, lawyers and academics Perdue named to the task force.

"He's looking for a way to take politics out of it. ... It would be a great legacy to be able to do something like that.''

Historically, state legislatures drew new congressional and legislative district lines only once a decade, a necessary task following every census to adjust for changes in population.

While lawmakers using the process for political gain is nothing new, redistricting has become more frequent in Georgia and other states in recent years. It is now commonplace for legislatures to draw new maps every time one party seizes power from the other.

"It's partisan, selfish politics at its most bare knuckles,'' said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a good-government organization that favors handling redistricting through independent commissions.

Bozarth said the worst effect of partisan redistricting is that it creates more noncompetitive districts. The party in power packs the other party's voters into districts where the opposition party is expected to win anyway, leaving the majority party's candidates with safer districts elsewhere on the map.

The result is that politicians running in - and later representing - most districts are free to take strongly partisan positions that appeal to their constituents, the great majority of whom are either very conservative or very liberal. There's no motive to look for middle ground on key issues.

"You get a lot more stridency in the debate,'' Bozarth said.

But it's the deluge of news stories across the country in recent years exposing the partisan nature of redistricting that is convincing more states to opt for independent commissions.

By the beginning of last year, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states were using independent commissions to draw congressional district lines and another six were having commissions decide both congressional and legislative maps.

The list includes such Republican-leaning "red'' states as Montana and Idaho and "blue'' states like New Jersey and Washington, where Democrats hold sway.

Two other states have commissions that advise their legislatures on redistricting but don't make the final decision, while five others only use commissions as a backup in case the legislature can't agree on maps.

"It's a national trend,'' said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University and another member of the new task force. "Ethics has been a hot issue. People want a system that's less controversial.''

Some Democrats are skeptical of Perdue's motives in creating the task force. Ironically, the governor first mentioned his intention to form the panel early last month as he was signing a Republican-backed redistricting bill that splits Clarke County into two Senate districts.

The new map will make it more difficult for Democratic Rep. Jane Kidd of Athens to capture the Athens-based Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Brian Kemp.

"Governor Perdue's record of hypocritically supporting partisan redistricting efforts suggests this is just another ploy to do more of the same,'' said Emil Runge, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

But Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said the governor is serious about at least finding out whether using an independent commission to handle redistricting would work in Georgia.

"Governor Perdue would like to see the lines drawn fairly. He wants constituents to feel they're being represented fairly,'' she said.

"He has great hopes this commission will be able to make recommendations on whether it's possible for an independent commission to take on that responsibility.''

The task force is due is issue a report by the end of the year.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.