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Georgia May Map the Way In Redrawing Racial Districts

WHEN the Georgia Legislature convenes today for a special session, members will compete in a high-stakes drawing contest that politicians in other states around the country will be watching closely.

The drawings in this competition aren't artistic scenes painted in watercolors but intricate maps sketched by computers. The maps outline different plans of how the Peach State's congressional districts should be reconfigured in the wake of a United States Supreme Court ruling last June.

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In that decision, Miller v. Johnson, the Court threw out Georgia's majority-black 11th district on the grounds that the state relied too much on race in drawing the elongated district, which runs from Atlanta to Savannah. The state is trying to devise another plan, which a three-judge panel will review at an Aug. 22 hearing. The outcome could have implications for states from Florida to Illinois where minority districts are being challenged.

"Georgia will likely be showing the way in how to deal with court orders saying you can consider race, but you can't consider it exclusively," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

It is too early to tell how the redrawing of districts here will reshape American politics, many analysts say. But most agree the Court's decision in the Georgia case has done little to clarify the muddy waters of racial politics.

"The degree of confusion within the Georgia Legislature about what they can and can't do, what they must and mustn't do to redistrict ... illustrates what the problem is going to be like," says Pamela Susan Karlan, a law professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Somebody is likely to sue Georgia no matter what it does.... It's an incredibly messy business."

In deciding Georgia's case last June, the Supreme Court referred to a 1993 decision in North Carolina. That case, Shaw v. Reno, focused on an odd-shaped minority-dominated district that the state had created to comply with the Voting Rights Act. In Shaw, the Court suggested that "racial gerrymandering" was unconstitutional. In Miller, justices said race could not be a "predominant" factor in drawing district lines, but it left unclear to what extent it could be considered.

The High Court has not had its final say on the subject of race and political districts. This fall, it is scheduled to hear two other cases - one in Texas and a second challenge in North Carolina. There are also lawsuits pending in Florida, Louisiana, New York, and Illinois that seek to invalidate minority districts, and observers expect more to follow. "There's no reason for them not to increase," Ms. Karlan says.

HERE in Georgia, dozens of plans for redrawing districts have been put on the table. "I have no idea right now what I will be submitting" to the judge on Aug. 22, says Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers. "We may not even have anything by then."

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Indeed, choosing a plan will be a contentious process. "You're looking at a game where you have three major players - the black Democrats, the white Democrats, and the white Republicans," Mr. Bullock says. Black Democrats and the Republicans both want to see minimum change because they've benefited under the current map, drawn in 1991 to add a third minority district. Georgia's House delegation, which in 1992 boasted a 7 to 4 Democratic majority, now has an 8 to 3 Republican majority, and the three Democrats are black. White Democrats, an extinct group in the congressional House but who make up a majority in Georgia's Legislature, want to see more substantial reconfiguration.

For many black politicians and leaders the court's decisions so far on redistricting mean a doomsday scenario. "If Georgia takes a stroll backwards, so will the rest of the nation," Cynthia McKinney testified at a recent meeting of the Georgia House and Senate reapportionment committees. Ms. McKinney, who was referring to plans that would throw out at least one of the state's three minority districts, represents the 11th District, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

If states are forced to redraw their congressional maps and some minority districts are abolished, blacks and Hispanics may be forced to engage more in coalition politics to secure their goals, some observers say.

"One argument says coalition politics is good because [minorities] spread out their influence," says Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The downside is that people, particularly the black community, will argue that coalition politics has not worked for the last 300 years and why will it work now?"

Mr. Scher predicts no clear gain for either Republicans or Democrats under redistricting: "As we move further and further along, everything is going to be up for grabs again."

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