Georgia redistricting battle may turn fiercer in courts

photo Sen. Vincent Fort, of District 39 representing Fulton County, disputes the proposed redistricting maps in the Georgia Senate at the State Capitol Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011 in Atlanta, Ga. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Jason Getz)

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers sped through the work of redrawing the state's political boundaries in three contentious weeks, but the fiercest fight over redistricting likely is just beginning and could take years to resolve.

The proposed legislative and congressional maps have cleared the Legislature and must now be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval under the Voting Rights Act. Georgia's history of discrimination at the ballot box means all election changes must pass muster with federal officials to ensure they don't weaken African-American voting power.

Even if the government signs off on the Republican-authored plans, they almost certainly will face a court challenge from Democrats, who contend the maps rip apart their party's successful efforts to forge multiracial coalitions. After gaining control of the Legislature and governor's office in recent years, Republicans also won control of the once-a-decade, partisan redistricting process for the first time.

Republicans argued that the maps will be approved because the plans increase the number of districts in Georgia with a majority of black voters. But Democrats counter that by "packing" black voters into districts they are actually limiting their ability to have a greater political influence and to form coalitions with others to select their candidate of choice.

Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant said he believes the GOP plan is unconstitutional and should fail to win clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts.

"This is clearly going to be challenged," said Bondurant, who has handled past redistricting cases for Democrats. "And I think they are quite vulnerable because Republicans have overplayed their hand."

It wouldn't be the first time.

Ten years ago, it was Republicans who cried foul over Democratic maps they claimed were drawn to save the party's incumbents and make Georgia even more blue. The maps were struck down by the federal courts, and the state's lines were redrawn in 2006.

Georgia's Republican leadership will decide whether to submit the maps to the Justice Department, the federal courts or both for approval.

Deal - who voted against the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 while in Congress - met with Attorney General Sam Olens and legislative leaders Thursday to discuss which path to take. The governor already has signed maps redrawing state Senate and House lines, and he is soon expected to sign the congressional map that gained final state Senate passage on Wednesday.

In Georgia, the state House maps create eight additional majority black districts and set up 10 face-offs in which incumbents must run against fellow incumbents from the same party. The congressional map adds a fourth majority black district in southwest Georgia, but radically redraws the 12th congressional district, represented by John Barrow, the last white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South.

Barrow, of Savannah, has won with solid support from African-American voters who made up 41 percent of the voting age population in his current district. That drops to 33 percent in the new GOP proposal.

Lawmakers are required to gather to redraw political boundaries to line up with decennial U.S. Census figures. Georgia's growing population gained the state a 14th seat in the U.S. House.

The Justice Department has, so far, cleared maps for Louisiana and Virginia this year and under the Obama administration has yet to deny pre-clearance to any state in this redistricting round.

Georgia and eight other states - mostly in the South - must receive pre-clearance of any election-related changes under the Voting Rights Act, because of a past history of discrimination.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act bans covered states and jurisdictions from diminishing black voters' ability to elect the candidate of their choice - saying essentially that once a state has built up minority voting power, it is illegal for the state to reduce that voting power.

Some Southern Republicans in Congress argued against reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, saying they had overcome the past legacy of discrimination and should no longer be subject to special scrutiny.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said that was the crux of the governor's opposition. Robinson said the landmark civil rights law "is used these days mainly for political shenanigans and Georgia - with its stellar modern history on equal access to representation and to ballot box - should be removed from Section 5 oversight."

Robinson added that the Voting Rights Act does not require states to protect so-called "influence districts" - like Barrow's - in which blacks make up a sizable chunk of the voting pool but fall short of a majority.

But there is disagreement.

Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia University law professor who specializes in voting rights and helped redraw Georgia's maps after the courts rejected state Democrats' 2001 plan, said Republicans generally focus on 50 percent as a magic number. He said Democrats and the Justice Department support a more flexible standard, aimed at minorities' ability to elect their preferred candidates.

That disagreement, Persily said, was papered over in the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act but is re-emerging as a key issue as states draw their redistricting plans.

At issue, could be the future of the Voting Rights Act. Arizona has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Section 5. Georgia's maps could be watched closely as that case moves forward.

Bondurant said Republicans in Georgia have their eye not simply on adding their commanding majority in the statehouse and in Congress but on an even bigger prize: the Voting Rights Act itself:

"One of the ways to destroy it, it is to pervert it, to turn it inside out," Bondurant said. "That I believe is what they are really after."

Connect with the Times Free Press on Facebook