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Feds approve new Georgia political districts

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Obama administration on Friday approved new boundaries for Georgia's congressional and legislative districts even though state Democrats charge that the Republican-drawn maps dilute minority voting strength.

The Department of Justice's decision helps the ruling GOP consolidate power in Georgia, which was controlled for generations by Democrats. Among the expected GOP gains is a new congressional district in the conservative northeast corner of the state that is widely expected to go to a Republican.

Because of a past history of discrimination, Georgia and eight other states -- mostly in the South -- must receive federal pre-clearance of any election-related changes.

Top state Republicans hailed the decision from the Democratic administration, saying it validated their claims that maps are fair.

"The maps offer rational district lines, equitable representation and meet the strict standards of the Voting Rights Act," Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement. "The Justice Department's decision demonstrates that our state's districts serve our diverse population well."

But Georgia Democrats said that while they were disappointed by the decision, it is not the last word. They are expected to challenge the maps in court.

"This is the first step in a long legal process," said state Sen. Jason Carter, an Atlanta Democrat.

Carter noted that a decade ago, the state's maps were upheld by the Justice Department and then struck down by the courts.

Sachin Varghese, a lawyer representing the state's Legislative Black Caucus, said federal authorities had "failed to protect minority voters in Georgia from discrimination."

"The Attorney General's promise to vigorously enforce the Voting Rights Act was short lived," Varghese said.

In a letter to state Attorney General Sam Olens, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said the office "does not interpose an objection to the specified changes." But he said that the failure to object did not preclude a lawsuit challenging the changes.

The redrawn maps were approved by Georgia legislators in a three-week special session in August and Deal quickly signed them into law.

Georgia Republicans now control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's mansion, as well as every other statewide office. This year marked the first time that Republicans controlled the redistricting process from start to finish.

In a role reversal, Democrats were the ones accusing Republicans of playing politics to consolidate political power.

The new state House maps create eight additional majority-black districts and set up 10 face-offs between incumbents from the same party.

The state's rising population means Georgia gains an additional seat in the U.S. House. Republicans placed that district in the conservative northeast corner of the state, which heavily favors Republicans.

The congressional map adds a fourth majority-black district in southwest Georgia. It also radically redraws the 12th congressional district represented by John Barrow, the last white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South. It moves Barrow into a neighboring district and makes the 12th more conservative; Barrow has pledged to run in the new district.

Georgia Democrats and their allies countered that Republicans "packed" black voters into certain districts, in effect limiting the ability of African-Americans to have more political influence and to form coalitions with others to select a candidate of their choice.

Olens, a Republican, said Friday that the responsible approach taken by the General Assembly during the redistricting process resulted in carefully drawn maps, which ensure that Georgia's growing population will be fairly represented."

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.

Lawmakers must redraw legislative and congressional maps every 10 years to conform to population changes reflected in the Census. In all, the maps set boundaries for 236 state legislators and 14 U.S. House districts.