Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Here Come Da Judge: Federal Court to Settle Redistricting Mess

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

Well it appears certain now that a federal judge will try to clean up the redistricting mess that Augusta placed itself in. Augusta commissioners voted 9-0 yesterday to seek federal intervention to end the saga over redistricting and get finalized district maps for the commission and school board.

Candidates and potential candidates for seats up for grabs this year have been in limbo since the local delegation could not come to an agreement on redistricting maps by the end of this year's session. That meant that the current maps drawn up after the 2000 census would still be in effect, but because of population shifts over the last 10 years, using the old maps would clearly put Augusta in violation of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. So the city took preemptive action to settle the matter instead of waiting for a third party to file a lawsuit.

As we've stated in previous articles, this entire thing could have been settled months ago. An ad-hoc committee was convened last Fall for the explicit purpose of re-drawing district lines. This committee was made up of members of the Augusta Commission, Richmond County School Board, and the local legislative delegation. A redistricting expert, Linda Meggars, was brought in at taxpayer's expense to assist in redrawing the maps. Several drafts were considered, and in the end the ad-hoc  committee voted unanimously to endorse what was known as Map-3R. That map was also endorsed by the Richmond County School Board. However, it failed to get the endorsement of the Augusta Commission, when two commissioners who served on the ad-hoc committee (Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith) changed their minds and blocked it at the December 6th Commission. The vote tied 5-5, but since the mayor was absent (on vacation), the measure to endorse the map failed by default.

Then the process moved to the state legislature where it stalled again. State Sen. Jesse Stone (R. Waynesboro), at the behest of Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham, blocked Map-3R  from moving forward and instead proposed starting the process from scratch, coming up with an entirely new map. Then in the final days of the legislative session, Stone proposed adopting Map-2R (one of the earlier drafts considered by the ad-hoc committee). This proposal failed to win support in The GA House, so once  this year's session was adjourned, Augusta-Richmond County was left with having to use the old maps from the 2000 census.

If there is any good news out of all this is that the city's decision to seek federal intervention will speed up the process to settle this issue once and for all. But once the courts are involved, there's no telling what the new maps may look like. It is unlikely though that a federal judge would make drastic changes to the maps that have already been considered with elections coming up presumably on July 31st. Most likely, the courts will look at the various maps considered by the ad-hoc committee and approve one of those. In that case, the likely outcome is that the courts will opt for Map-3R. After all, it was approved unanimously by the ad-hoc committee , received the endorsement of the school board, and received the endorsement of 5 Augusta Commissioners. Also, Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver is on record supporting Map-3R. This is the map that is still on the city's elections website and the one that many candidates have already become familiar with. Going through a complete redraw could take months and with elections moved up to July 31st, that could create an even bigger mess, so it seems very likely that the courts will favor Map-3R.

Sending this to the Federal courts could mean that the State Senate Bill that moved Augusta's nonpartisan elections from the General Election ballot to the July 31st general primary ballot may very well be struck down or delayed, especially with new district lines not settled until May at the earliest. Holding the elections in July would leave little time for candidates to qualify under the new maps, raise money and campaign. So look for the elections date to be pushed back to November. So in the end, after all of this drama we could be right back where we should have been in the very beginning.***

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