ATLANTA (AP) -- The state House approved a new set of congressional districts Thursday, fulfilling a major goal of Republicans who took over the chamber this year.
The new map rearranges the state's 13 congressional districts to erase the partisan gerrymander passed in 2001, when Democrats ran state government. Typically Congressional districts are drawn just once a decade, but the GOP said the odd-shaped districts were so unfair to them that it needed to be done sooner.
The map, approved 104-72, features more-compact districts, and safer districts for the seven Republicans in Congress. The only incumbent who was left without a district was Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Athens, who would be paired with a longer-serving Republican, Rep. Charlie Norwood. Georgia now has seven Republicans and six Democrats in the U.S. House.
Republican leaders said the map was a much-needed improvement over the current map. They showed pictures of current odd-shaped districts on a projection screen and said the gerrymander of 2001 was a wrong that must be righted, even though that plan was OK'd by a federal court.
"We were forced to sit back as our communities and our counties were sliced and diced," said Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta. He pointed out that the current plan splits 34 counties; the GOP bill splits only 17.
Democrats complained that a new map wasn't needed and that the GOP was just doing the same partisan drawing that they once accused Democrats of.
They also argued that it was foolish to spend the money needed to redo lines. It would cost more than a million dollars, both sides agreed, because voters would have to be informed of their new districts and because Georgia must apply for federal approval of any redistricting effort.
"There is no reason other than just the arrogance of politics to do this," said House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin. "Republicans already have the majority of the districts, and they just can't stand not to have the rest."
Black Democrats said minority voting power would be diluted. "It is a blatant violation of the Voting Rights Act," said Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany.
Republicans insisted their plan did not water down the black vote. House Republican Leader Jerry Keen said there was no reason that minorities would be hurt by more-compact districts. "This is a huge and dramatic improvement," he said.
A Republican congressman who pushed hardest for a new map, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Newnan, applauded the vote. Westmoreland was the top-ranking Republican in the state House when the 2001 map was adopted and has long derided that plan.
"This a giant step," he said in a statement Thursday.
The map now heads to the Senate, which is also in Republican hands. If the Senate also votes for it and Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue signs the bill, as expected, the new districts could be in use by the 2006 election.
On the Net:
Read House Bill 499: http://www.legis.state.ga.us
See the map: http://georgiareapportionment.uga.edu/maps.html