TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators carve up the state's political boundaries, they are armed with a data mine that includes the voting patterns of every household in Florida, the demographics of every city, county and census block and powerful computer programs. And they are handing over the same information and software to the public.
It is a technological leap into transparency that many national observers say is more ambitious than most states.
The Florida House has launched the website www.floridaredistricting.org, a Microsoft product that contains information on the public hearings, the time line, charts with census data and reams of legal resources. Attached to it is the House's MyDistrictBuilder.org, that allows users to program their own maps using the same tools legislators use. House staff has also produced a how-to video at youtube.com/mydistrictbuilderfl.
The Senate has its own website and district builder, using open-source software on an Amazon cloud server. They ask users to request their own account at flsenate.gov/session/redistricting.
These are the latest tools in the growing science of redistricting that, critics say, has made it easier for politicians to pick their voters instead of voters picking them.
Florida legislators say they have no option but to make sure the public is engaged. Because of the redistricting amendments that impose strict new guidelines forbidding incumbent protection and political gerrymandering, they have to engage the public more than ever. The last thing legislators want is to have someone prove their intent was the carve a district to favor an incumbent or string together a series of districts to benefit a political party.
"Florida has been out front in political participation for redistricting for a long time,'' said John Guthrie, staff director of the Senate Redistricting Committee and a 30-year veteran of redistricting efforts in Florida. "This time it really becomes a mandate. We have to build the record of intent and rely on that record to support the boundaries."
Rep. Will Weatherford, the House redistricting chairman, said that the goal was to make Florida's system "the most transparent process we can make and to do that we decided to develop a 21st-century software program."
It is an evolution that began in 1982 with the use of mainframe computers to draw the first automated political maps. By 1992, legislators sealed off one floor of the Capitol building, lined the room with personal computers, provided secure access to a select few and used a room-sized copier to reproduce colorful computer-generated maps.
In 2002, legislators had computers and software that was exponentially more powerful. Lawmakers trained staff to learn how to manipulate district lines and overlay voting trends and growth patterns to produce the most powerful projections ever for how a district would perform politically. But even then, the Internet was still relatively new, there were no Google Maps or server clouds and the public had to download software programs and access to enough computer power to play with the political maps like politicians.
This time, legislative leaders say, all the census and voting data, as well as redistricting tools, will be as accessible online to the public as it is to lawmakers. The question is: will people use it?