TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators begin three months of public hearings Monday to hear what voters have to say about their once-a-decade task of realigning the state's political maps to reflect shifts in population and growth.
Known as reapportionment of the population, and redistricting of legislative and congressional seats, it is an exercise like no other in state government.
Redistricting is raw politics to the core — often fostering unusual alliances of ideologically opposite legislators whose goal is to preserve their own political careers and broaden their party's power.
It will be driven by technology, with new software and databases that allow lawmakers to determine the voting patterns of every block and enable public inspection of every map.
It will inevitably erupt into a legal battle, as new redistricting rules imposed by nearly 63 percent of voters in the 2010 election attempt to ban the protection of incumbents and shield minority voting rights but leave more potential trip wires than ever before.
And it will shape Florida history. While a fraction of voters may turn out for a general election and dictate state politics for two to four years, redistricting forces politicians to hit the reset button and that can leave a political imprint for decades.
"We are starting with a blank slate,'' House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told a Tallahassee radio station this month. "It is a pain. It's a lot of work but I think it's very important. What you're really doing is making sure everyone's vote is valued."
The House and Senate redistricting committees will begin their so-call "listening tour" of 26 cities in Tallahassee Monday with some basic facts:
• Florida grew from 15.98 million in 2000 to 18.8 million in 2010, enough to reward the state with two new congressional districts — a total of 27.
• The rebalancing of population will mean that the "ideal" sized congressional district will grow from 639,000 people to 696,000. The 40 districts in the state Senate will grow in population from 399,000 to 470,000, and the 120 state House seats will expand from 133,000 to 157,000.
Lawmakers want people to bring their ideas and concerns to the public hearings, which will continue through the Panhandle this week, go to the Northeast Coast and Central Florida in July, hit South Florida in mid August and finish up in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Southwest Florida in late August.
The most obvious changes will come in the districts that have seen the most growth in the past decade, or whose stagnant growth makes them smaller than the new ideal district. That includes the super-crowded district of freshman Congressmen Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, which is 33.5 percent overpopulated. The district of U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Cape Coral, is 23 percent overcapacity and U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, has seen his district grow 21 percent.
In the state Senate, the districts of Republican Sens. Alan Hays of Umatilla, Ronda Storms of Valrico and Paula Dockery of Lakeland also will have to shrink. Rep. Stephen Precourt, an Orlando Republican, has the dubious distinction of having the most bloated district in state government, having grown 61 percent over capacity in the last decade.
Weatherford, the House's designated speaker in 2012, has a district that must lose 55 percent of its population. Down state, freshman Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, has to lose 54 percent of his district.
Several legislative districts, however, won't contract, but will have to expand — potentially pitting incumbents against each other. The districts that are now smaller than the ideal size are those of Republican Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole and Reps. Larry Ahern of St. Petersburg, Ed Hooper of Clearwater, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Erik Fresen of Miami. Democratic Reps. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, Daryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores also must cover more geography to reach the district population goal.
Unlike the redistricting efforts in 1992 and 2002, which allowed for the quiet protection of incumbents as long as minority representation was given priority, the new Amendments 5 and 6 explicitly say that congressional or legislative districts "may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party."
Even stronger are the amendments' requirement that districts "shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice" — a provision that Republican leaders say is a stronger protection than existing law. And, finally, the constitutional mandate imposes what is considered a second tier priority — that districts must be contiguous, compact, "as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries."
That is a heavy lift for a Legislature that two decades ago created Florida's Third Congressional District, an ink-splat-shaped splotch that strings together a majority of African-American and Democratic voters across nine counties and 140 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando.
The district is held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and it helped her become and remain one of three African Americans elected to Congress from Florida in 1992 — the first time since Reconstruction.
In 1992, Brown was a state representative and part of a coalition of black lawmakers who joined with Republicans — then the minority party — to concentrate black voters into a district comprising a majority of African American voters. It's a process called "bleaching," which former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once called "legislative apartheid."
By removing reliably Democratic black voters from surrounding districts, the realignment helped Florida Republicans win control of the Legislature and eventually the congressional delegation.
As a testament to the lasting power of redistricting, Brown's district remained intact through the redistricting process of 2002 and is now regarded as one of the most severely gerrymandered districts in the nation.
A 2002 legal challenge to the Legislature's redistricting maps argued that the districts weren't compact or community based. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that challenge, however, saying that compactness and community-based boundaries were not constitutionally required. The website Redistricting the Nation, run by the software firm Azavea, has studied Florida's congressional districts and ranks them among the least compact in the nation.
The state's new redistricting standards aim to change that. Meanwhile, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case found that the only election districts entitled to the minority voting rights protections of the federal Civil Rights Act are those districts in which minorities make up at least 50 percent of the voting age population.
The redistricting rules and the federal court decisions now raise the question of whether Brown's district — and many others like it in Florida that were designed to produce a political outcome — will withstand this year's redistricting effort.
"That's the million-dollar question,'' said Susan MacManus a University of South Florida political science professor and redistricting expert. "I liken it to a kaleidoscope. You turn it one way and everything else changes. People are going to see the plans and judge them differently. It's a formula for uncertainty."
The day after voters approved the redistricting Amendments 5 and 6, Brown sued, along with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, a Miami Republican who as a legislator in 2002 helped draw himself a successful congressional seat. They argued that the amendments will reverse their hard-fought attempts to gain black and Hispanic representative in Congress. They fear that their districts, now packed with minority voters, will be diluted and make it potentially more difficult for minorities to stay in office.
The Florida House joined the lawsuit, led by House Speaker Dean Cannon. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who campaigned against the amendments and warned they were unworkable, refrained from jumping into the fray, saying the voters had spoken.
Legislators now must not only navigate the requirement to protect minorities and create compact, contiguous districts without favoring incumbents, they must do it with a more racially diverse and densely populated state than ever before.
According to the 2010 census, minorities now make up 42.1 percent of Florida's population with 18.8 percent of the state's residents born in another country. Hispanics are the largest minority group in Florida — 22.2 percent — while blacks make up the next largest minority.
Fair Districts Now, the bipartisan coalition that campaigned for the amendment, received backing from many groups aligned with Democrats but was also led by Republicans lawyers from previous redistricting battles. Their supporters say they believe that protecting minority voting rights is compatible with the amendment goals of trying to remove the influence of politics in the redistricting, restore competition to congressional and legislative districts and to increase the chances that incumbents will be held accountable.
If legislators adhere to the standards, they say, the districts that emerge this year should more evenly reflect the split between Republicans, Democrats and independent voters in Florida and be more competitive for all politicians.
Republicans now make up 35 percent of the state's registered voters, while Democrats have 41 percent of the electorate and voters with no party affiliation make up 24 percent.
Political representation in the state Legislature and Congress, however, is less reflective of those numbers. Of the state's 25-member congressional delegation, 19 of them are Republican. There are 81 Republicans in the state House and 39 Democrats, while there are 28 Republicans in the Senate to the Democrats' 12. There are no legislators elected with no party affiliation.
No matter the outcome, the new standards will give license to "more people who believe they have standing to file lawsuits,'' predicted Sen. Don Gaetz, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee and a Republican from Niceville.
As a result, both the House and Senate have ordered their members not to speak up or ask questions during the hearings so as to avoid making any statement that could draw a legal challenge as to a legislative intent. Legislative staff also has been ordered never to draw a map that includes any notation of a legislator's home.
In anticipation of the legal fight, lawmakers have squirreled away at least $19 million for a legal defense fund. Gaetz said legislators spent nearly $10 million in 2002 defending their redistricting maps and this year, the Senate gave itself a $9 million budget to finance its redistricting defense. The House, meanwhile, has set aside $8.5 million and has another $23 million at its disposal in untapped reserves.
Weatherford, however, said he remains hopeful that lawmakers can reach an agreement on time and avoid litigation." I don't think it's rocket science,'' he said. "There's a way to do this and a way to do it right."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.