New Rules Turn Up Heat On Florida's Redistricting

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History shows us that elections can turn on details — a momentary lapse during a debate, the design of a butterfly ballot, who oversees a recount. That's why so much attention is being paid this year in state capitals to redistricting.

Every 10 years, congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn to reflect changes in population.

Although many states have already finished redistricting, Florida is just getting started. And it's turning into a heated political battle.

Defining 'Gerrymandering'

In the political lexicon, few politicians have reached the status of 19th century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. After he presided over his state's legislative redistricting in 1812, the Boston Gazette newspaper said a resulting district resembled a salamander. Add to that his last name, Gerry, and the term "gerrymandering" was born. It means drawing an electoral district in a way that benefits an incumbent or political party.

But state Sen. Don Gaetz says that in Florida, gerrymandering is in the eye of the beholder.

"It is a verb and a noun which has been abused a great deal," he says. "One person's gerrymander is the next person's court-ordered district."

Gaetz is a Republican and one of the legislators in charge of overseeing Florida's redistricting process.

Here, as elsewhere, Republicans drawing new district maps see minority voters — particularly Hispanics and African-Americans — as allies. Florida is one of the states covered by the federal Voting Rights Act, so it has to take special care with minority voting districts and submit its maps to the Justice Department for approval. It's the law, but for Republicans it can carry a bonus: Packing Democratic-leaning minority voters into those districts can help Republican candidates in adjoining areas.

This year, because of its population growth, Florida is adding two new congressional seats. The map being considered by the state Senate draws one of them as a majority Hispanic district in central Florida. At a hearing in Tallahassee, Emilio Perez, a political activist from the Orlando area, was there to say thanks.

"It was because of the growth of the Latino community in Central Florida that Florida gained two new congressional seats. We will support you in all your efforts to make sure that these seats will be protected against any potential lawsuits or any other suggested violations that anyone can mention against it," he said.

On The Road To Court?

Legal challenges are likely because of a new set of rules guiding redistricting in Florida. Constitutional amendments adopted last year now require lawmakers to draw districts without regard to parties or incumbents — in other words, without gerrymandering.

Because of those new guidelines, Democratic leaders in Congress have high hopes for Florida. They need 25 seats to regain control of the House. The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Steve Israel, said last month the path to those 25 seats "flows straight through Florida."

Now, after months of hearings and meetings, the first redistricting maps have just come out. And Florida Democratic Senate leader Nan Rich doesn't like what she sees.

"I believe that it does not comply with the specific standards that are now in our constitution. I think we were directed by them to allow the voters to select their elected officials, not the other way around," she says.

Because Republicans have control of the House, Senate and governor's mansion, Democrats will have little say in Tallahassee about how the maps are drawn.

Already, it's clear that both sides are girding up for a showdown in court. At the Tallahassee hearing, Republican Sen. Joe Negron, an attorney, sounded very much like a lawyer preparing for a court appearance.

"The facts show that this was done through hearings, done through public testimony, done through having our staff look at nothing except what was following the law and what was in the best interest of Florida," he said. "There's been no evidence that our process has been tainted in any way by political considerations."

That ultimately may be decided by the courts. Challenges have already begun. Republican leaders in Florida's Legislature are seeking to overturn the new redistricting rules — the same rules that for now they say they're being careful to follow.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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