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Posted at 12:12 PM ET, 02/17/2011

'Fairness' in Florida and how it could help Democrats

By Aaron Blake

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This is the 11th in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Florida. (And make sure to check out the first nine installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia and Pennsylvania)

House Democrats have been talking since Nov. 3 about playing offense in 2012, and if they do, Florida could be leading the way.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday that Florida is set to play a key role in a Democratic comeback.

"The only way that they could conceivably add more Republicans to Florida without violating Florida's own fair redistricting standards would be to redistrict into Bermuda and the Cayman Islands," Israel joked. "Florida Republicans have a problem."

All Israel needs is a little cooperation from a few judges.

Redistricting is a process intricately intertwined with the legal world, and nowhere is that more clear than in the Sunshine State.

The state's voters in November passed two constitutional amendments that aim to restrict the amount of "creativity" -- ahem -- that legislators can use during the drawing of new districts. It said the new districts must not "favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party," must be "compact" and must make use of existing "geographical boundaries."

Because Republicans control the entire redistricting process in Florida, the effects could have a real impact on whether the GOP can keep its stranglehold on the state's congressional delegation. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Florida will gain two more congressional districts after reapportionment, meaning it will have a whopping 27 members of Congress.

But there is still much to be determined about how potent those amendments are and whether they will stand up in court.

If judges side with Republicans, the GOP will likely keep an overwhelming advantage in the state's congressional delegation, which currently contains 19 Republicans and just six Democrats (in a swing state, mind you).

If judges side with Democrats, experts say we could see anything from a few endangered Republicans to a huge overhaul of the state's congressional delegation, in which Democrats pick up as many as four, five or six seats.

"It's a 50-50 state," said Democratic redistricting guru Tom Bonier. "That would suggest that if you were to draw a fair map, you would have a 50-50 distribution of seats."

But just how "fair" the map will be is very much an open question.

Republicans think the terms of the amendments are too generic to cause much trouble, and they also think that the amendments violate the Voting Rights Act by preventing the state from drawing distant communities of African-American voters into one district.

"What they want sounds great on paper, but you cannot legally execute it," said GOP consultant Rick Wilson.

What has resulted is an early round of legal battles.

The amendments' supporters are suing Gov. Rick Scott (R) after the governor pulled a request for pre-clearance from the Justice Department. Parts of Florida are protected by the Voting Rights Act, and the Justice Department needs to make sure any changes comply with the act's requirement that minority districts be protected.

The amendments' supporters have accused Scott of stalling. His office didn't respond to a request for comment.

In addition to that situation, a separate legal case has created an unusual alliance between the GOP and Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown.

Brown's district is at the center of the controversy. As one of three African-American Democrats with a majority-black district, she could see her district dismantled if Democrats and supporters of the amendment -- a group called Fair Districts Florida led the charge -- have their way.

The reason is that the district, as it's drawn, is so oddly shaped that Brown and Republicans say it may not be possible to keep it intact under the new rules. It snakes from Jacksonville in the north, west to Gainesville and south all the way to Orlando, gluing together a patchwork of black communities that give it just enough African Americans to qualify as a majority-black district.

Dismantling Brown's district would have the side effect, of course, of allowing Democrats to "unpack" the district, taking its many Democratic voters and spreading them around nearby districts, creating three or four Democratic-leaning districts where there is currently just one solidly Democratic district.

That would be good news for Democrats in the state but bad news for Brown.

For her part, Brown said she's not worried that her party's interests may be at odds with her own. But she said the long-term effect of the law could be damning to African-American lawmakers if it undercuts the Voting Rights Act.

"If this passes in Florida, it will go on to the other Southern states," she said. "I think this is a big, big deal."

There's also the possibility that Brown's lawsuit is moot, because it may not be possible to draw a black-majority district with the new Census data (which has yet to arrive for Florida). If a black-majority district cannot be drawn, then the protections of the Voting Rights Act might no longer apply, and the district can be significantly redrawn under the new redistricting rules.

Either way, it's a potentially bad situation for the Republicans, who have basically maximized the number of districts they can hold in Florida and hope to win the two new districts.

If Brown's district is dismantled, freshman Rep. Dan Webster would likely have a Democratic-leaning district after taking on more Orlando Democrats, and at least one more solid Democratic district would be created -- possibly one of two new districts the state will get through reapportionment. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) could also have a tougher district, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report.

The other main area of contention in the state is Rep. Alcee Hastings' (D) black-majority district in South Florida. Because the district isn't quite so oddly shaped as Brown's and is more solidly majority-black, it seems likely that it will keep most of its voters.

In between Hastings' South Florida district and Brown's district, there are several other areas where Democrats could make gains -- depending on how the legal proceedings turn out.

One is Rep. Allen West's (R-Fla.) district, which currently ties together the most Republican parts of the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale areas. The district is so oddly drawn that it would likely have to be overhauled under the new rules and, in the process, pick up a bunch of Democratic voters.

Another is Rep. Bill Young's (R-Fla.) district. The Democratic-leaning city of St. Petersburg is currently cut out of his district. Making things more compact may return the city to Young's district.

Both West's and Young's districts both went for President Obama in 2010 and could flip back even as they stand now (though Young's is more likely to flip after the popular 80-year old congressman retires). But both are about as Republican as they can be right now and will likely get tougher if altered.

So what about the two new districts?

One of them is expected to be a Republican-leaning district in South Florida -- likely in the Fort Myers/Naples area -- while the other is likely to be somewhere in between Orlando and the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

Both could be Republican, as all the overpopulated districts in those areas are currently held by GOP members. But if Democrats are able to dismantle Brown's district, Republicans may want to create one of the two new districts nearby to soak up much of Brown's territory and help shore up some nearby GOP incumbents.

Republicans are still likely to come out of redistricting with more winnable districts than Democrats. But it's almost impossible for Democrats to have a worse map for the next decade than the one they have been dealing with for the past 10 years. And that's good news for a national Democratic party whose redistricting advantages are few and far between.

By Aaron Blake  | February 17, 2011; 12:12 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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