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Make Your Voice Heard Soon on Voting Districts

In November 2010, Floridians voted 63 percent to 37 percent for two new constitutional amendments intended to make Florida’s legislative and Congressional voting districts fairer and more representative of Florida communities. AARP Florida strongly favored the amendments.

See Also: Government Watch – Hold your elected officials accountable

But enacting constitutional standards to ensure voters get a fair chance to choose their elected leaders was only the first stage of a two-year process in redrawing voting districts.

And now that voters have had their say and lawmakers are starting to draw district lines, a brand-new factor is coming into play that could have a big impact on how voting districts are drawn: You.

Floridians could have the opportunity to take a more active role in the redistricting process than ever before, says AARP Florida Interim State Director Jeff Johnson.

Using the same computer software as state officials, Floridians could have a chance to comment on legislative proposals for redrawing district maps and to submit alternative proposals to the Legislature for consideration.

The software, My District Builder, is an online tool offered by the state that allows the public to draw and submit their redistricting proposals.

Here’s one very important deadline: If you would like to try your hand at drawing district maps, make sure you submit your plan through My District Builder no later than Nov. 1. That’s the last date for members of the public or interested organizations to submit draft plans.

In other developments, state lawmakers have agreed to provide alternative maps earlier in the process than they had earlier planned, so that citizens and interested groups have a plan to review.

Johnson noted that citizens have several good reasons to weigh in on the redistricting process. First, Johnson said, the courts have historically been called upon to review any Congressional and legislative redistricting plans the Legislature ultimately passes. When the courts become involved, comments and plans offered by Florida’s citizens and voters could play a pivotal role in shaping any plan approved by the court.

“In fact, if your redistricting plan meets the legal standards better than the Legislature’s does, then your plan could become the law of the land,” Johnson said.

Redistricting is almost always the subject of intense interest in political circles. Why? Traditionally, the process has been used not to help voters have a say in choosing their community’s future, but to help parties and politicians choose their voters.

Every ten years, the population data gathered by the Census is used to determine the apportionment, or distribution of congressional representation for each state. Since Florida has grown a lot since the 2000 Census, the state has been allotted two additional seats in Congress beginning with the 2012 general elections.

For many years, politicians and parties have used this process to help maintain power. “Gerrymandering”, or creating districts to favor candidates and political parties, has produced bizarrely shaped districts throughout Florida, including Congressional districts shaped like mutant salamanders and legislative districts drawn to systematically break up communities and neighborhoods to create political advantages.

Because of the new Congressional seats and because of sweeping changes in Florida demographics, all Florida Congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn in 2012. The redistricting plans under the new standards will affect the political careers of many Florida elected leaders.

However, this year, Amendments 5 and 6 could have an effect on how the voting-district maps turn out. The most important change will be that new voting districts must follow existing geographic, city, county or other jurisdictional lines to the extent feasible. Voting districts must be nearly equal in population and can’t be drawn to favor or disfavor any political party or candidate. Districts must also be “compact”, so districts must be drawn to reflect communities, rather than to create districts tailor-made for political parties or candidates.

Learn more about taking part in this discussion online, or call AARP at 1-866-595-7678 toll-free to get involved.