Florida Begins Redistricting Hearings
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Florida, a political battle is underway. The outcome will help determine the makeup of Florida's legislature and its congressional delegation. We're talking about redistricting - always a controversial process. Every 10 years, states redraw their district maps, and in the past decade Florida has grown by nearly three million people. That means it is adding two congressional seats. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, the state has new rules that attempt to take politics out of the process.
GREG ALLEN: Other states, like New Jersey and Illinois, have completed their redistricting maps. With just over a year until the 2012 primary, Florida is just getting started.
Unidentified Man: The House redistricting hearing is called to order. Will the administrative assistant please call the roll?
ALLEN: At this hearing in Tallahassee and at two dozen others being held around the state, Floridians are invited to contribute their ideas about how the state's 120 legislative and now-27 congressional districts should be drawn.
In terms of creativity however, it will be hard to outdo the current maps. Ten years ago, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature drew a masterpiece of gerrymandering. In a state almost evenly split between registered Republicans and Democrats, it's helped the GOP win two-thirds of the seats in the state legislature and 19 of 25 seats in Congress.
At the hearing, Tallahassee resident Adam Anthony Biblo noted that, under current maps, even small cities like his are split up among several legislative districts.
Mr. ADAM ANTHONY BIBLO: When it's divided, whatever the intent is, it gives the appearance that it's divided for the wrong purpose, that is to dilute, diminish the effect of the voters of that urban area.
ALLEN: When new maps are drawn, that time-honored practice of slicing up urban areas like a pie may have to change. Last fall, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments that rewrite the rules for how congressional and legislative maps can be drawn.
Under the new rules, which are being challenged in court, districts must be contiguous and compact and as much as possible follow existing geographic boundaries such as city and county lines. What's more, they must be drawn in a way that doesn't favor incumbents or either political party.
For legislators, political consultants and activists, it's a whole new ball game, and many, like Susan Watson of Florida's ACLU, are eager to get started.
Ms. SUSAN WATSON (Florida ACLU): Where are the maps?
ALLEN: Florida's House and Senate have set up an elaborate website devoted to redistricting that even includes software allowing Floridians to draw their own district maps. But while others are welcome to get started, the legislature says it won't release its proposed maps until next year.
Watson says without maps on the table, the planned 11 weeks of hearings will be meaningless.
Ms. WATSON: Start a meaningful conversation. Otherwise, you're just wasting everybody's time.
ALLEN: Another speaker, Henry Kelly, disagreed.
Mr. HENRY KELLY (Fort Walton Beach Tea Party): With the growth of our population, I'm glad to start with a blank slate.
ALLEN: Kelly, who's with the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party, said he's even created a few congressional and legislative districts using the committee's website.
Mr. KELLY: I have found the software easy to use. It took me about 15 minutes, with the help of the videos, to become proficient and several hours to draw the plans.
ALLEN: House redistricting chairman Will Weatherford says he views the new software and maps produced by the public as a form of crowd-sourcing: drawing input from the largest number of people possible before the legislature puts its own map together. And he rejects any suggestion these hearings are just window dressing.
State Representative WILL WEATHERFORD (Republican, Florida): Well, what would be window dressing would be if we drew maps now and then asked them what they thought. And they'd say: Well, you don't care what we think because you've already drawn the maps.
We think that the best way to go about his process is to take public testimony on the front end and then draw maps and then go back and take more public testimony based on the maps that you've drawn.
ALLEN: Whatever maps the legislature eventually produces will be scrutinized by the state supreme court and the Justice Department. Having a well-documented record of public comment, Weatherford says, will help that process.
If history is any guide, Florida's redistricting plan is also likely to face legal challenges. Florida's legislature won't release its final district maps until January, and many here worry final maps won't be approved in time for the state's filing deadline in June.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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