Thursday, May 26, 2011

Democrats roll out changes to their remap proposal

By Jamey Dunn

Democrats revealed a tweaked version of their proposal for a legislative map today, while Republicans unveiled a map that they say was drawn without political considerations but which may only serve as fodder for a future legal challenge to a Democratic map.

Republicans say they say they did not look at incumbent legislators' addresses and did not take political data into account, except when drawing districts to protect the voting power of minority groups. In the House, their method led to 17 members of each party being mapped into a district with at least one other incumbent from their party. The balance in the Senate is not as even — four Republicans share districts, compared with 14 Democrats. The proposed Democratic map calls for 19 House Republicans in shared districts and six Democrats. It would put eight incumbent Republican senators in shared districts. No incumbent Senate Democrats share a district under their proposal.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Charleston Republican, said that in the GOP proposal, the ratio of Senate Democrats sharing districts to Republicans mirrors the overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the Senate. He also said the population shifts of the last decade are illustrated because lawmakers who would share a district under the map have lost population in their current districts.

Republicans say their map complies with the Federal Voting Rights Act while trying to follow county and municipal borders wherever possible. “The maps … demonstrate that you cannot concern yourself with where incumbents live and not concern yourself with what Republican/Democrat numbers are … and draw a map that is constitutional.”

However, Dr. Leon Finney, co-chairman of the legislative redistricting committee for the African American Leadership Roundtable, said the Republican map “creates an illusion of fairness.” He said while the number of minority/majority districts is important, so is the way they are drawn. He said the plan reminds him of a proposal from the 1991 remap that “packed” districts with African-Americans and diluted their political voice. “Having gone through this in 1991, I am very painfully aware of the need to unpack those districts.”

Republicans and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund both said Democrats’ previous map proposal violated the federal Voting Rights Act and diluted the voting power of minorities.

“The adjusted boundaries we’re releasing today aim to address many of the recommendations brought to our attention during the public review process,” said Sen. Kwame Raoul, chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

MALDEF pledged to unveil a reworked version of its own proposed Latino districts earlier this week, but the plan never materialized publicly. Whether the new proposal goes far enough to satisfy the group’s legal complaints remains to be seen. Several calls to MALDEF throughout the week, as well as today, have not been returned.

Josina Morita, executive coordinator for the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, the group that created a so-called unity map that is backed by a coalition that bridges several interest groups, said the Democrats’ new proposal makes many of the previously proposed minority districts stronger by increasing the percentage of minority residents above voting age. She said “improving the percentages in key areas” was a priority for members of her coalition. Morita said she could not predict whether the new plan would find broad-based support from the groups that unified behind her organization’s proposal. She did say, “All of us would say that this is an improvement, and we feel like this is an accomplishment.”

Some observers have noted that Republicans — who are effectively shut out of the process because Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office — are likely trying to build a legal case against whatever map Democrats eventually approve. Righter acknowledged that today’s proposal from his party could help bolster a future case. “That may depend on which attorney to which you speak,” he said. “There is some belief that this could make a difference in our court challenge, but I’m really hesitant to go beyond that because I am not that embedded in the legalities.” A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said they are reviewing the Democrats' plan, which was posted online after 6 p.m. today.


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