ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Every 10 years, after the release of the U.S. Census count, lawmakers in Tallahassee battle over how Florida's legislative and congressional districts should be redrawn.
This time, the fight is happening beforehand.
Two proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 2 ballot would set new standards for how the districts are sketched. Amendment 5 deals with legislative districts, while Amendment 6 addresses U.S. congressional districts. Like all state constitutional amendments, each requires a 60 percent majority to pass.
The battle has pitted several of Florida's best-known black and Hispanic lawmakers against advocates who argue the current methods create gerrymandered districts that protect political power and incumbency while producing noncompetitive races.
Gerrymandered districts have contorted or unusual shapes. They are created to get particular voters into a district, whether for racial, economic or political reasons.
"Politicians currently have an ability to draw districts to protect themselves and political allies, or to draw their political adversaries out of seats,'' said Ellen Freidin, campaign chairwoman of FairDistrictsFlorida.org, the group leading the push for the amendments. "It doesn't matter which party is in power. Whichever party is in power wants to take advantage of redistricting so it can enhance their ability to stay in power.''
The amendments' supporters include the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause, AARP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Fair Districts' leaders include former Gov. and ex-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican.
The black and Hispanic lawmakers argue that the new standards could threaten Florida's six congressional districts where blacks and Hispanics are either in the majority or close to being in the majority. The black or almost-black-majority seats currently are held by Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Kendrick Meek, all Democrats, while the Hispanic-majority seats are held by Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans.
In the state Legislature, 13 House seats and three Senate seats are black-majority, while 11 House seats and three Senate seats are Hispanic-majority.
"I'm saying that these amendments would disenfranchise African American voters. Period,'' said Brown, whose district is one of Florida's most serpentine, stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando.
But supporters of the amendments say that Brown and the others are just worried about their own jobs, not minority representation. They say language in both amendments explicitly prohibit minorities from being denied the chance to participate in the political process or prevented from electing representatives of their choice and point out the measures have the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Democracia Ahora, two minority rights groups. Blacks currently make up 15.6 percent and Hispanics 21.5 percent of Florida's 18.5 million residents.
"We wanted to make sure the politicians can't use redistricting, as they have in the past, to silence the voices of any segment of the population in Florida,'' Freidin said.
When it comes to redistricting, Florida currently has one of the most laissez-faire approaches in the entire country. The only requirement is that districts be contiguous, or sharing a common border. The new amendments would require that both legislative and congressional districts be compact, equal in population and make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries. The amendments also would prohibit drawing districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.
Similar efforts failed in Florida in 1978, 1993 and 1998. But Barry University political science professor Sean Foreman said this year's effort has a better chance of passing given voter anger at the status quo.
Any changes to Florida's redistricting process would likely hurt Republicans more than Democrats since they control both chambers in the Legislature and account for 15 out of Florida's 25 congressional districts. The lack of competition in Florida's House races was evident in 2008, given that only four had a winner who won with less than 55 percent of the vote. Many are uncontested.
"Certainly the party in power will be impacted more,'' Foreman said. "Because Republicans have a disproportionate edge in elected officials compared to registered voters, they stand to lose as a result.''
The amendments already have survived court challenges. Brown and Mario Diaz-Balart filed an unsuccessful challenge in court to get Amendment 6 taken off the ballot. The Florida Legislature tried to put on the ballot a separate amendment that opponents said would undermine Amendments 5 and 6, but it was struck down by a judge who called it misleading and confusing.
If voters approve Amendments 5 and 6, they likely will face even more court challenges that could threaten to delay the redistricting process set to begin next year and extend into 2012.
"If this passes, we will go the next day to federal court,'' Brown said. "We'll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.''