Redistricting process underway

COVINGTON -- Newton County Districts 3 and 4 will see the most changes during reapportionment.

Based on the Census population count, District 3 will lose population while District 4 will be expanded.

Officials with the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education held a joint meeting Monday night, an orientation session to familiarize them with the regulations of reapportionment prior to a planned Tuesday morning meeting at Georgia Reapportionment Services Office.

The orientation was led by County Attorney Tommy Craig, who is going through his fourth round of reapportionment with the county.

Based on the 2010 Census, the county's population is 99,958. When that total is divided by five, the number of districts in the county, the ideal population per district is 19,991. Previously, it was required that each district fall within 5 percent of that ideal, but that no longer assures approval by the Justice Department, Craig said. What matters most is that the plan is unanimously approved by both boards.

As currently drawn, District 1 is the most compliant with the ideal, with a population of 20,383. District 1, represented on the BOC by Mort Ewing and the BOE by Jeff Meadors, deviates less than 2 percent from the ideal population count.

It looks like District 3, represented on the BOC by Nancy Schulz and on the BOE by Shakila Henderson-Baker, stands to lose the most ground, as it is currently 34 percent over the ideal population. District 4, represented by J.C. Henderson on the BOC and Almond Turner on the BOE, is about 33 percent under that number. The remaining districts are District 2, represented by Lanier Sims on the BOC and Eddie Johnson on the BOE, which is about 6 percent over the ideal population, and District 5, represented on the BOC by Tim Fleming and on the BOE by Abigail Coggin, which falls about 9 percent under.

Craig advised officials that the reapportionment plan must pass Constitutional muster, including requirements under the Voting Rights Act that prohibit gerrymandering and retrogression, or making a minority group worse off than it was before redistricting. Districts 3 and 4 must be maintained as majority minority districts, with at least 50 percent plus one comprised of black voters. Currently, District 3 is 57 percent black, and 53 percent of those blacks are of voting age. District 4 is 59 percent black, with 55 percent of those of voting age.

Though not considered a majority minority district, with 45 percent blacks and 41 percent of those voting age, District 2 is considered a district of influence. That means that while there isn't a large enough minority population to control the outcome of an election, the numbers are high enough to influence an election. Officials are encouraged, but not legally required, to keep the numbers high enough to maintain districts of influence, Craig said.

These requirements are due to a history of discrimination against minorities in Georgia. Craig pointed out that in Newton, the racial makeup of districts isn't always reflected in who gets elected.

"We have situations here where there's a black elected by a majority white district and a white elected by a majority black district ... there's some color blindness going on in this process," he said.

Officials will work on the maps in the coming months. Both bodies will be required to pass a resolution asking the General Assembly to approve the new map under local legislation. Once approved and signed by the governor, the maps go to the U.S. Department of Justice for pre-clearance, a 60-day review process.

Local legislation needs to be drafted by the start of the General Assembly in January and must be passed and pre-clearance granted prior to qualifying for the 2012 primary, which takes place May 23-25. The primary itself will be held July 31. The new map will take effect during the 2012 election cycle.

If officials can't agree on a new map, they will be ordered by a federal judge to do so, Craig said.