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Redistricting a formidable task for 2011

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- One of the state's most renowned political scientists said south Georgia is poised to lose more representation as the state reorganizes political districts in the wake of the latest census figures.

While Georgia itself picked up one new seat in the U.S. House of Representatives thanks to an increase in population, the epicenter of the growth in Georgia continues to be in northern Georgia, which University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock expects to see Georgia's newest congressional district emerge.

"It's no real secret that the northern portion of the state is where most of the real growth in terms of population has been," Bullock told The Herald in a recent interview. "Areas around Gainesville and other parts north of Atlanta proper continue to see an influx of people."

Meanwhile, in south Georgia -- everything below the "gnat line" as Bullock says -- growth is slower, or, in some cases, stagnant or even declining as people move from their hometowns out-of-state or to larger urban centers looking for work or higher education.

This growing population disparity between the northern part of the state and the south will translate into significant changes in how "the Two Georgias" are governed both at the state and federal levels when the General Assembly takes up the redistricting process in the second half of 2011, Bullock said.

CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICTS

In terms of south Georgia, the three main congressional districts -- the 1st, 2nd and 8th -- will most likely be impacted by the population shifts.

Under federal guidelines, law and caselaw handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, when the General Assembly tackles redistricting it must take into consideration certain factors.

Two Supreme Court opinions handed down in the 1960s -- Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims -- state that the districts must be drawn so that "as nearly as is practicable one person's vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another's," and that state districts must be "as nearly of equal population as is practicable."

Additionally, Georgia must have its districts approved by the U.S. Department of Justice prior to their taking shape when the 113th Congress takes its seat in 2013, to ensure that minority districts are fairly represented both at the federal and state levels.

While the U.S. Census has until April 1 to get the local census data to the General Assembly for use in redistricting, based on the three above guidelines and Georgia's population trends that have already been announced, Bullock said he believes the three main south Georgia Congressional districts will likely undergo changes before they can be approved.

Since the 2010 Census data show that Georgia's population grew by 18 percent between 2000 and 2010 to better than 9.6 million residents, and each district has to be close to the same number of residents, changes in population density in the south will likely mean all three districts will have to pick up some real estate to keep the 680,000-people-per-district ratio close, Bullock said.

"Since the population will presumably be more dense in northern Georgia, the southern districts will have to find more people to equal out," Bullock said. "That could make for some interesting drawing given that the 2nd is landlocked by Alabama and Florida, and the 1st is locked in by Florida and the Atlantic.

"What I expect you'll see is that the Republican leadership will concede the 2nd to Sanford Bishop and draw the 8th to make it safer for newly minted congressman Austin Scott," he added.

Bullock said he doesn't expect the 2nd congressional district to change much geographically, but it will likely be redrawn to pick up the rest of Muscogee County in the north.

STATE HOUSE DISTRICTS

When it comes to the state House districts, Bullock admits race becomes more of a factor when redrawing the lines.

In Albany, which includes primarily two districts whose residents are predominately black, Bullock doesn't foresee many changes in the shape of the districts unless the population within Albany and Dougherty County stayed stagnant.

"In the 150th and the 151st, they likely won't change much unless there either was very little growth or a decline in population," Bullock said. "In that case, they may have to go further east in the county and take the real estate that currently belongs to the 152nd.

"The Justice Department won't like it, but they could justify it," he added.

In that instance, residents of eastern Dougherty County would lose representation they have under Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, and likely pick it up from Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany.

Broadening the picture, the future isn't very good for the southern part of the state in terms of state representatives.

South Georgia is poised to lose at least two Senate seats and at least six house seats to north Georgia because of the disparity in population, which will increase the influence metro Atlanta and northern Georgia representatives have on policy.

That means that hot-button issues such as water rights and state funding could be resolved to the benefit of northern constituents regardless of the displeasure of those in the south.

Even more concerning is the shift in party politics, Bullock said, as more Republicans are elected and more Democrats defect -- Rep. Mike Cheokas of Americus switched to the Republican party just this month -- the closer they get to obtaining the 2/3 super majority needed to rail through amendments to the state constitution.

Still, Bullock said that it's unlikely Atlanta will work with reckless abandoned against the concerns of the south.

"Atlanta is growing in influence, especially when compared to when Tom Murphy was speaker," Bullock said. "But, at the end of the day, I think those concerns are a bit overplayed. People in rural Georgia still have significant voting power at the polls for statewide office, and no one wants to jeopardize that."