ATHENS, GA--In Georgia, the state legislature convened in a special session Monday to approve new state House and Senate district maps released Friday, as well as forthcoming new congressional districts. A similar process for commission districts is under way.
Once state lawmakers approve the maps, they will go to the U.S. Department of Justice for review. The Voting Rights Act prohibits packing minority voters together or diluting their strength.
Maps drawn by the majority Republican Party do exactly that, state Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, said at The Melting Point forum.
"The ploy is to purge a lot of African-Americans out of those (Republican) districts," he said.
Forty-nine of the 180 state House districts are majority-minority, and Republicans raised the proportion of black voters to as high as 72 percent in those districts in order to create more GOP-leaning districts, Heard said.
"You pack blacks and you remove whites," said lawyer John Clark, who is black. "To me, that is pure, unfettered discrimination."
Republicans also paired six white Democrats with six black incumbents, forcing them to run against each other.
But when Democrats drew the lines after the 2000 Census, they paired many more Republican incumbents, said Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens. Courts threw out those maps and drew new ones in 2004.
"It was time to go on a hunt 10 years ago to eliminate Republicans," McKillip said. "They did it as much as they could."
Republican leaders say they are confident their maps will meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
"These are a good set of fair maps," McKillip said.
On the local level, black voters called for eliminating the commission's superdistricts that each include four regular districts covering half the county.
"We are adamantly, adamantly opposed to the continuation of the superdistricts," another black lawyer, Ken Dious, said.
Athens is 27 percent black, but only one of the 10 commission districts is majority-minority. Another is represented by a black commissioner, but is only about 45 percent black, not including University of Georgia students, who rarely vote in local elections.
A panel of commissioners, school board members and party activists are working on new commission maps. One proposal only would tweak district lines to equalize their populations. Another, drawn by Republican appointee Regina Quick, would eliminate superdistricts, boost minority influence in Eastern Clarke County's District 1 and make other major changes.
The superdistricts were created during city-county unification in 1990 as a compromise between the two systems of government, former Mayor Gwen O'Looney said. City voters used to elect two councilmen in each of five wards, while county voters elected five at-large commissioners.
"Everyone in the city had the opportunity to vote for three people, and everyone had three representatives (including the mayor) they could call on if they had a need," O'Looney said.
"All of the community was well-represented, and it was well thought-out," she said of the 1990 districts, which are largely unchanged today.
McKillip is planning on introducing his own commission map -- though not during the special session -- that he said will include 10 regular districts and no superdistricts, which he agreed dilute minority voting power.
He said he wants at least one Republican to be elected in heavily Democratic Clarke County. The 35 to 40 percent of Athens residents who vote Republican are being disenfranchised because no commissioners are Republican, he said.
"What that says to me is these maps have been gerrymandered by Democrats for Democrats," McKillip said.
Several Republicans have been elected to the commission under the current maps, though none since 1998. Athens voters started throwing out conservatives and electing a more progressive mayor and commission in 2000 and 2002.
"In Athens, we're lucky to have Democrats and Republicans in every neighborhood," said Shaye Gambrell, appointed by Mayor Nancy Denson to represent Democrats on the local redistricting committee.
"We want our local commission districts to be representative of neighborhoods, not representative of political parties," Gambrell said.
Russell Edwards, the state Democratic Party treasurer, questioned whether a Republican-leaning commission district is even possible to draw, noting that President Obama won all but one Clarke County precinct in 2008.
"You talk about gerrymandering -- that's basically what you're doing," Heard told McKillip at the forum.
McKillip said he will release his proposal in the next month or so and asked voters to keep an open mind.
"Everybody in the room who's saying I'm horrible for drawing a map, take a look at it before you make up your mind," he said.