Originally created 02/21/99

Districts influence politics



Districts are the salvation or the bane of modern politics, depending on who you talk to.

And when.

Few issues have stirred so much hope and so much frustration in Georgia politics in the past 20 years, opening political seats to minority and women candidates while building a battleground among legislators -- and between legislatures and the federal government.

A flood of lawsuits in the early 1980s led to federal mandates to create wards or reapportion districts for local elections in the Augusta area. The class action lawsuits charged that at-large elections for commissions and boards unconstitutionally diluted the voting power of black residents.

Traditionally, minorities and women fare better in districts, where their voting power can be concentrated.

"Burke County is a good example. You have 100 years in a county with a very high minority population, and no black officials elected until they came in and drew five districts (in 1982)," said Ralph Walker, a political scientist at Augusta State University. "At-large elections always favored white candidates."

In 1988, the Augusta City Council voting system shifted from a citywide to a ward system to comply with a U.S. Justice Department mandate. The council's racial makeup shifted accordingly, from 12 white and four black members to eight white and five black members. Three years later, black ministers C.S. Hamilton and Johnny Hatney ousted white city council veterans to achieve a then-high of six black council members on the now 13-member Augusta Commission.

Subsequent reapportionment in 1992 reflected the county's racial makeup and gave blacks parity in local government, balancing the Richmond County Board of Education, the county commission and the legislative delegation.

Andrew Jefferson and Adna Stein were elected to an expanded 10-member school board that previously had been 6-3 white; Moses Todd and Freddie Handy were elected to an expanded, eight-member county commission that had been 4-2 white; and Bettieanne Hart was elected to the Georgia Legislature, balancing a delegation that had been 5-3 white.

The same year, the Legislature created two more black-majority congressional districts in Georgia, leaving Augusta split between the 10th District, which was 80 percent white, and the 11th, which was 60 percent black and sprawled from Atlanta to Savannah. Legislators, however, soon found themselves in a difficult position when the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the 11th District lines in 1995, ruling that gerrymandering for black votes made the district unconstitutional.

"After all that work with the Justice Department, the Supreme Court comes in and says `No, you can't do this strictly based on race,"' Dr. Walker said. "There was a lot of frustration among the people drawing the districts. It's hard to draw with changing guidelines."

The flap created strange bedfellows, with GOP and black lawmakers joined in opposition to redistricting. Black lawmakers wanted to keep black political strength consolidated in the districts, while Republicans wanted to contain liberal votes inside the districts, rather than allowing them to dilute conservative strength in other places.

Even with the redrawn district, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Savannah retained her seat in the 11th District during the next election. She and black Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany, Ga., have continued to receive voter support from majority-white districts.

"One interesting thing in Georgia, that is distinctive, is that a black Democrat can run about as well as a white Democrat," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. "The voters are voting for party rather than race. Bishop and McKinney can get 30 to 40 percent of the white vote, while the candidates running against them can get maybe 10 percent of the black vote. When you look at the black voter, race and party reinforce each other."

The next congressional redistricting is scheduled to follow the 2000 census.