0

Ex-staffer: Redistricting needs overhaul

ATLANTA - Congressional and legislative redistricting in Georgia has become too political and should be taken out of the hands of the General Assembly, the former director of the state's redistricting office said Wednesday.

"The system's broke, and something needs to be done to fix it," Linda Meggers told members of a task force created by Gov. Sonny Perdue to consider whether redistricting should be handled instead by an independent commission.

Historically, redrawing district lines in Georgia and other states was a task that legislatures undertook only once a decade after the census to adjust for population changes.

Meggers, who ran Georgia's redistricting office from 1978 to 2004, said lawmakers used to be able to reach agreements among themselves that protected incumbents within district boundaries that made sense.

But she said the process became more overtly political during the 1990s, when lawmakers began drawing lines based on racial considerations.

Meggers said redistricting became even more partisan in recent years, with the General Assembly controlled by Democrats in the first part of this decade then switching over to the Republicans.

She said the advent of sophisticated computer technology has allowed legislators to use reams of political data that wasn't available to earlier mapmakers to maximize the advantage to one party or the other.

"It was one of the most evil things we did to the process," she said. "It didn't serve the citizens or communities of Georgia well."

Mel Hill, former director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, said state policymakers once considered creating an independent commission to handle redistricting.

He said a committee helping draft a new constitution for Georgia in the late 1970s suggested the change, but the idea was dropped before a final version was put to the voters.

Hill said members of an independent commission would be able to isolate themselves from political considerations in drawing congressional and legislative maps.

"You can think about the big picture," he said. "You can decide what's best for the people."

Meggers said a way to ensure that members of an independent commission aren't motivated by politics would be to prohibit them from running for office for a certain period after they serve.

She also suggested that a redistricting commission be limited to no more than a dozen members, so it would be manageable, but no fewer than seven, so no single member could gain undue influence.

Perdue dropped in during Wednesday's meeting, the second since he appointed the panel in April.

"My question is, 'Is there a better way ... and how would that work?'" he said. "I don't have any preconceived expectations."

The task force is to make its recommendations by the end of the year.