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Florida redistricting meetings start with many questions, few answers

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators were greeted with both hostility and distrust Monday as they opened the first of 26 redistricting hearings in the state's capital, a company town where Republicans control government but Democratic voters are a majority.

From the "recovering civics teacher" who called the $30 million the Legislature set aside to defend its redistricting maps the "no-lawyer-left-behind act," to the resident who said he wouldn't be satisfied until every district mirrored the state voting registration numbers — 41 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican and 24 percent no party affiliation — the Republican-dominated committees were on the defensive.

A common theme was the decision by lawmakers to conduct the public hearings before they propose maps for the once-every-10-years redrawing of districts. The move drew allegations that legislators are intentionally dragging their feet, despite warnings that new constitutional standards approved by voters in 2010 will lead to an inevitable legal fight.

"It really looks like an incumbent-protection plan here, because you're delaying and prolonging the process to the last possible date,'' said Marty Monroe, a retired Leon County civics teacher. "This creates chaos for candidates and very little time for the education of campaigns. It is very highly unlikely that Floridians, the voters, will know their new districts before (candidate) qualifying.''

Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz of Niceville and his House counterpart, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, say the joint committee of House and Senate members is determined to listen first and write maps later as they embark on a summer-long series of hearings. They noted that the state Constitution prohibits a vote on the final maps until 2012 and said they have accelerated the process as much as possible.

"There certainly is no gag order, but we are here to listen first and, if there's time afterwards, (committee members) can speak,'' Weatherford said. "Politicians spend lots of time talking and very little time listening and we're going to change that."

Legislators took the punches from many of the nearly 60 speakers and, for the most part, stayed true to their self-imposed rule of refraining from speaking until public testimony was done.

They breached that rule once, however, when Linda Forster stood up to commend the lawmakers for their timeline but urged them to refrain from focusing on ethnicity and color in creating districts.

"I don't see your color here. I don't see your ethnicity. We're Americans,'' said the former teacher, who identified herself as a Republican. She said she "left Miami because it was chaos – because of Elian,'' referring to the 2000 federal custody battle of the Cuban boy who lost his mother at sea. "That is not America."

But Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, said he couldn't let the woman's comment go unchecked. "I represent Miami-Dade County and I am proud to represent the diversity that exists in my community,'' he said. "Unfortunately, you may have left, but I stayed there to fight and make sure we do things right."

Another common theme: Voters want their districts linked to the same communities where they live and work, and they want lawmakers to keep politics and personal ambition out of the debate.

Linda Williams noted how her congressman is U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville in Duval County — more than 120 miles away. Others complained that their state senator, Charlie Dean of Inverness, is more than 200 miles away.

"I don't know whether we're so important they need us in Duval or we're such bad people they don't want us,'' Williams said, then added a plea to the committees. "Before I die, let me vote in Leon County … Give us some local representation."

After the meeting, the committee chairmen promised to steer clear of the age-old practice of protecting incumbents when drawing maps.

Weatherford said he has told House members their previous districts exist no more. Gaetz said he has ordered senators: "Do not produce any map that shows where incumbents live. This can't be about individual political agendas."

Fort Walton Beach Tea Party chairman Henry Kelly chastised redistricting reform groups, such as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and Common Cause for supporting the Fair Districts Now amendments but refusing to propose their own maps.

"I have found the software easy to use,'' said Kelly, who said he spent 15 minutes learning how to operate District Builder software from the House and Senate and created proposed maps for Congress and the state Senate. "It is my view that any group in the state of Florida, particularly those with paid staff, have no excuse not spending a few hours putting together a plan."

He admitted, however, that with 120 districts the process is much more tedious in the House.

The redistricting road show moves on Tuesday to Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

For additional coverage, visit www.tampabay.com/redistricting

Common Redistricting Terms

Apportionment: The process of assigning seats in a legislative body among established districts.

District: The geographical boundaries that define the constituency of an elected official.

Redistricting: The process which uses Census data to redraw the lines and boundaries of electoral districts within a state to ensure they are substantially equal in population. This process affects districts at all levels of government – from local school boards and city councils to state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering: The drawing of electoral districts to give one group or party an advantage over another.

Ideal Population (Equal Population): The total state population divided by the number of seats in a legislative body.

Preclearance: The process of seeking review and approval from either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal court in the District of Columbia for any voting or redistricting changes for certain jurisdictions.

Majority-Minority District: One in which a racial or ethnic minority comprises a majority of the voting-age population.

Minority Crossover District: One in which minorities do not form a numerical majority but still reliably control the outcome of the election with some non-minority voters crossing over to vote with the minority group.

Minority Coalition District: A type of majority-minority district in which two or more minority groups combine to form a majority.

Minority Influence District: One that includes a large number of minority voters but fewer than would allow them to control the election results when voting as a bloc.

Minority Vote Dilution: What happens when minority voters are deprived of an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of choice. It is prohibited under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Retrogression: A voting or redistricting change that puts minorities in a worse position than under the existing law or district.

Census Block: The smallest level of census geography used by the Census Bureau to collect data. Census blocks are formed by streets, roads, bodies of water, other physical features and legal boundaries shown on Census Bureau maps.

Census Tract: Small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county delineated by local participants as part of the U.S. Census Bureau's Participant Statistical Areas Program. Census tracts generally have between 1,500 and 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000 people.

Precinct: An area created by election officials to group voters for assignment to a designated polling place so that an election can be conducted. Precinct boundaries may change several times over the course of a decade.

Source: Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee

Florida redistricting meetings start with many questions, few answers 06/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 20, 2011 8:50pm]
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