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Key committees OK new political maps

State Reps "Coach" Wiliams , left, and Mack Jackson have a discussion during a break in the first day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Nathan Deal at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.

State Reps "Coach" Wiliams , left, and Mack Jackson have a discussion during a break in the first day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Nathan Deal at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.

ATLANTA -- Key committees in the Georgia Senate and House on Tuesday cleared political maps redrawing district lines for the 236 members of the state Legislature.

The maps, unveiled to the public just five days ago, could face votes on from the full House and Senate by week's end.

Republicans who are leading the redistricting process from start to finish for the first time turned back Democratic objections that there was not enough time for citizen input and that the reshaped districts unfairly target white Democrats.

Under the proposals, 20 House members and two senators will face off against fellow incumbents from their own party to keep their seats.

Eight Republican incumbents from South Georgia, which has seen its population shrink, will be pitted against each other. The six Democratic matchups are all in the metro Atlanta area. Four of them pair white Democrats against their black colleagues.

In the Senate, the chamber's longest serving member, Sen. Georg Hooks, of Americus must fight to keep his seat against state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims.

State Rep. Roger Lane, a Darien Republican who is chairman of the House reapportionment committee, called the maps "the most fair sensible and constitutional we could have drawn."

Lane said it was a painful process.

"No matter who you are, when you have to pair somebody up it hurts, because we're all a family," Lane said.

Tensions were high in the Senate on Tuesday as Senate Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of shutting them out and not allowing them to present alternate maps to a plan.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said Democrats attempted to submit their plan but were told they were too late.

"We did not have enough time," Henson said. "It's totally bogus that this is a fair and open process."

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort said Democrats planned to submit their maps Thursday on the floor of the Senate. He said the process has "hijacked and betrayed the people of Georgia."

"Partisanship and race are in play here today," Fort said. "It's wrong and we're going to fight it."

But Senate redistricting Chairman Mitch Seabaugh said Democrats still have other options for presenting their map before a final vote.

"I am sorry if you can't read the rules or obey the rules," Seabaugh said. "I am going to follow the rules."

At the committee hearing, Seabaugh said the proposed map was the result of input from senators and the public, and that it keeps together the majority of the state's counties and voting precincts, preserves most incumbent districts, adds a majority minority voter district and pits only two incumbents against each other.

Redistricting is required by federal law to adjust political lines according to population changes as reported by the U.S. Census. Georgia is one of several states with voting practices that are subject to additional scrutiny from the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, designed to deter discrimination against minority voters.

Several members of the public addressed the committee at the hearing, their first opportunity to comment on the maps since they were unveiled on Friday. Some expressed confusion and disappointment that their senator had been moved out of their district. Others praised the committee for holding hearings around the state and for listening to their input.

Sen. Donzella James told the committee that she was unhappy with the proposed changes to her district, which she said seemed to ignore her requests during the map drawing process. Over the past decade, James' district swelled by more than 43,000 residents and had to be adjusted to ensure equal representation under the law.

"Every single thing I asked for is what got taken out of my district," James told Seabaugh in a heated exchange that lasted several minutes. "I've worked hard for a strong community of interest. We built that. Why does it have to be torn apart?"

Seabaugh responded that the changes were a result of growth in her area.

"You were right next to districts that were under-populated," he told James. "You had to give up something."

Lawmakers in both chambers have alluded to the possibility of a legal challenge to the GOP-drawn maps.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jason Carter argued that the changes to the area his grandfather, President Jimmy Carter, represented as a state senator are a textbook case of a minority voting rights violation.

"That district has been destroyed, literally eliminated," Carter told his colleagues. "That is the definition of retrogression. I'm sick of living in a state that's a test case for the Voting Rights Act."

In the House, a packed hearing last four hours.

Democrats presented an alternate map they said did a better job of keeping together communities of interest.

But after hearing Democrats complain about long skinny districts linking disparate neighborhoods, Republicans ripped into House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams for presenting a map that had some of those same slender districts.

"It's a little like the New York Yankees complaining about the Boston Red Sox payroll," state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Powder Springs Republican, said.

Members of the public who remained through about three hours of lawmaker testimony were limited to statements lasting just one minute.

Lane said the maps maintain 49 majority minority districts and comply with the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect minority voting interests.

In addition to passing both chambers and being signed by the governor, Georgia's maps must be cleared by the U/.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts under the Voting Rights Act because of the states past history of discrimination.