Sunday, August 07, 2011

Redistricting Session Will Affect Oconee County Primarily in Georgia House and Senate

Williams in Spotlight

Oconee County’s four commissioners as well as the chairman run at large, rather than by district.

The same is true for the five members of the Oconee County Board of Education.

None of the county’s four cities has districts for their council members.

So when the Georgia General Assembly meets a week from tomorrow to begin its discussion of redistricting made necessary by the 2010 Census, the impact for Oconee County primarily will be felt through the county’s status in future Georgia House and Senate districts.

All Oconee County voters currently vote in the 46th Senate District, represented by Athens attorney Bill Cowsert, and the 113th House District, represented by newly elected Chuck Williams, Oconee County businessman.

But that has not always been the case.

As recently as in 2002, voters in the two most northwestern Oconee County precincts–Bogart and Dark Corner–were part of the 73rd House District with Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties, while the remainder of the county was in the 76th, with Clarke and Madison counties.

And voters in Farmington and Antioch, the two most southern Oconee County precincts, were in the 47th Senate District with parts of 15 other counties, while the rest of the county was in the 46th Senate District with Barrow, Clarke and Jackson counties.

In 2000, prior to the release of the Census of that year, all of Oconee County had been in the 91st House District with Morgan and Newton counties and in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Barrow Counties.

The Democrats controlled the Assembly in 2001 and drew the new district lines for the state.

The Democratic redistricting subsequently was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court without comment.

The Supreme Court let stand a decision by a three-judge federal panel in favor of a Republican challenge that the new districts were purely political, designed to maximize Democratic representation.

The judicial panel produced the current configuration that puts all of Oconee County in the 113th House District with parts of Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe counties, and all of Oconee County in the 46th Senate District with Clarke and Walton counties.

Now it seems possible–maybe even likely--that the 113th will change again, perhaps resulting in the division of the county between or even among districts.

Williams was asked his position on redistricting in the two candidate forums held before the June 21 first round of voting in the special election and in the sole candidate forum for him and Democrat Dan Matthews before the June 19 runoff.

Oconee County residents have made it clear they don’t want to be divided, Williams said repeatedly. The special election was called so Oconee County would be represented in the redistricting session.

But Williams said he could not “commit” that the county will not be divided.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis spoke at a legislative hearing on May 16 in Athens, saying he wanted Oconee County to remain whole after redistricting.

He said when the county had been represented by more than one person, those representatives did not always agreed, and that hurt the county.

“I want Oconee County to remain whole. I want it to remain intact,” he said.

But a number of Clarke County citizens who are part of the 113th also spoke at the hearing and made it clear they didn’t like the current configuration, which makes them a minor player in the 113th.

In the current 113th House District, 24.7 percent of registered voters are from Clarke County, compared with 59.7 percent from Oconee County, 9.8 percent from Oglethorpe and the remaining 5.8 percent from Morgan County.

The Clarke County voters are from Winterville, in the far eastern tip of the county, from two precincts in the very south of the county, and from another precinct and parts of a precinct in the far western part of the county.

The three Clarke County pieces of the 113th don’t even connect to each other.

Williams will be under some pressure to fix that problem.

And he also is likely to be under pressure to do something else–help neighbor Doug McKillip create a district that is more Republican.

McKillip was elected in the 115th House District in January of 2010 as a Democrat and switched to the Republican Party before the session began earlier this year. The 115th is entirely in Clarke County and is traditionally Democratic.

McKillip told me that he has no deal with House Speaker David Ralston to guarantee him a better district, but that doesn’t mean McKillip isn’t likely to try to create a more favorable district.

Getting Malcom Bridge or Athens Academy precincts from Oconee County, both heavily Republican and contiguous with McKillip’s current 115th District, would help.

McKillip has been prominent in Republican events since Hank Huckaby resigned the 113th seat in April to become chancellor of the University System of Georgia. Huckaby had been elected to that seat in 2010 after long-time House member Bob Smith stepped down.

Smith, as well as Huckaby, are from Oconee County.

One constraint that could affect any efforts to create a more Republican district for McKillip could be the 1965 Civil Right Act.

Section V of that act says that states that previously created procedures to limit voting by Blacks had to demonstrate that any changes in voting procedures were free of racial discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, in a Mississippi case, expanded the definition of discriminatory voting practices under the act to include anything that diluted the impact of the Black vote.

So changes in districts have to meet that stipulation.

Oconee County has very few African-American residents.

The 2010 Census data show that only 4.9 percent of the population is Black of African-American. On July 1, 2011, only 843 Blacks were registered in the county, making up 4.0 percent of the registered voters.

Blacks made up 8.4 percent of the registered voters in the 113th District on July 1, 2011.

In contrast, 17.1 percent of the registered voters in the 115th District, which McKillip represents, were Black.

The 114th, represented by Keith Heard, was 37.4 percent Black, in terms of voter registration.

Heard is an African-American, while McKillip is White.

Blacks make up only 4.1 percent of the Malcom Bridge and Athens Academy precincts, so adding them to McKillip’s district would dilute rather than increase Black representation.

In general, adding Republican voters to a district dilutes the African-American vote, which historically has been disproportionately Democratic.

Williams is likely to be a team player in the House of Representatives.

He touted his connections to the political establishment and the General Assembly during the campaign, and these connections showed up in his campaign financial statement.

According to his June 13 and July 15 campaign finance statements, Williams got $23,850, or 43.0 percent of his campaign funds, from the campaign funds of other politicians, including $2,500 from House Speaker Ralston.

An examination of the timing of these contributions shows that only Winder Rep. Terry England, who gave $2,500 to Williams, contributed before Williams won the June 21 first round of voting, where he had Democrat Dan Matthews and Republicans Alan Alexander and Sarah Bell as competitors. Matthews and Williams went into the runoff on July 19.

England contributed $1,000 on June 18 and $1,500 on June 23, according to Williams’ records.

I checked both Williams’ reports and those of the corresponding campaign committees and found them to be in agreement regarding timing of contributions with minor exceptions.

I could not find in the reports of the corresponding committees five of the contributions Williams recorded. Candidate not running for office had to file a report on June 30, while Williams’ report was through July 15.

Williams and Huckaby’s reports show that the former representative gave $500 to Williams in two equal installments, one before the June 21 election and one after.

Candidate Bell received contributions from the committees of three politicians before the June 21 election. These were $350 from James Mills of Gainesville, $250 from Sam Teasley of Marietta and $250 from Tim Echols of Winterville.

Alexander did not report receiving any funds from other politicians.

The candidates don’t have to file their final statements until the end of the year, and the contributions for Williams are almost certain to change.

It seems likely Williams will have a significant war chest to use should he decide to run for reelection in 2012. On July 15, he had $34,860 in unspent funds.

In addition to using these monies for himself, he also can give them to other candidates, such as those who contributed to his campaign.

In the aftermath of the July 19 election, both The Oconee Enterprise and the Athens Banner-Herald attributed Matthews’ defeat in part to low turnout in Clarke County.

In fact, turnout was only 12.8 percent in Clarke County compared with 15.9 percent in Oconee County.

But Williams won in the 113th District by 1,252 votes, so Matthews would have had to more than double the 1,135 votes cast in Clarke County and gotten all of the extra votes to have gained the lead over Williams.

But Matthews got only 61.1 percent of the 1,135 votes counted in Clarke County, meaning he would have needed an even greater and very unlikely turnout rate to overcome Williams’ victory margin in Oconee County, where Williams got 70.0 percent of the vote.

The real issue was not turnout, but rather that Clarke County contributes only a quarter of the voters in the district.

Reflecting this gap, the focus of the campaign clearly was Oconee County.

All three of the major candidate forums held before the election were in the county, the first organized by Russ Page and me at the Oconee County Library, the second by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce at North Oconee High School, and the third by the Chamber at th Oconee County Civic Center.

Clarke, Morgan and Oglethorpe make up smaller parts of the district, so it is harder for citizens there to come together and less enticing for the candidates to go visit them.

Campaigns also rely heavily on advertising.

The campaign finance statements show that all candidates spent much more heavily in the Oconee newspapers than in the newspapers in any of the other counties.

Alexander bought ads in The Oconee Enterprise and on Cox Radio. Bell did exactly the same.

Matthews used those two media and bought ads in The Oconee Leader and with WXAG radio in Athens.

Williams ran ads in the Enterprise, the Leader, The Morgan Citizen, The Oglethorpe Echo, WDAK in Greensboro, Cox Radio and Bostwick Broadcasting in Monroe. He put more ads in the Leader and the Enterprise, however, than in the other newspapers.

Morgan and Oglethorpe counties and, to a lesser extent, Clarke County voters were simply given less attention because there were fewer of them.

That is what could happen to Oconee County voters if the county is split as a result of the redistricting agreement the two houses of the legislature come up with in the special session that starts a week from tomorrow.