February 4, 2011 | AOL News | Original Article

Redistricting Battles: Five States to Watch as Census Is Released

So the battle begins.

Neighborhood population data from the 2010 census were delivered this week to state leaders in the four states with the tightest deadlines for drawing new district boundaries, and were released publicly Thursday night. Virginia, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi all have statewide elections scheduled in November.

Next week, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to release neighborhood data for Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Vermont. Census data must be released for all 50 states by April 1 under federal law.

Here's a look at five states where the battle to redraw boundaries may prove most contentious.

All five states must comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires district maps to receive U.S. Justice Department approval to ensure that the political power of minority votes is not diluted:

Virginia: For the first time since the Civil War, the Legislature is split, with the Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in charge of the House. That alone may be enough to stall the negotiations when lawmakers meet in April in a special legislative session to do the task.

Several other obstacles also complicate the chore. Rapid growth in northern Virginia over the past decade tips the political balance in favor of that part of the state, which is more liberal than the rural communities in the southern and western parts. Meanwhile, Republicans may try to stall. They want to regain control of the Senate in the fall elections, and because congressional districts do not have to be redrawn until 2012, they may try to delay until then.

California: The Golden State is one of the few in which Democrats still control both the Legislature and the governor's office. Ordinarily, that'd be a sure recipe for fortifying their power with the once every decade reapportionment. But the California Assembly is no longer in charge of redrawing the maps.

This year, for the first time, a new Citizens Redistricting Commission -- the first in the nation -- is redrawing the district lines, and it's anyone's guess how they will turn out. The 14-member commission must follow strict criteria that make it difficult to draw the kind of districts that were created in the backrooms of the state capital, said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonprofit devoted to campaign finance reform. "For example, you can't protect incumbents," he noted.

New York: It's far easier to agree on a new electoral map that adds new seats instead of subtracting them -- and New York loses two seats in Congress. Five of New York's 29 congressional districts are protected by the Voting Rights Act, all of them in New York City. That always complicates efforts when it's time to shrink the numbers. Then, as in Virginia, the Legislature is split: Republicans control the Senate, and Democrats control the House and governor's office. Unless there's a compromise, the plan is likely headed for court.

Texas: Democrats don't have enough members left in the Legislature to run off to Oklahoma in order to prevent a vote on new district lines, as they did -- for a few days -- when the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the map in 2003. But there's no reason to think the effort this time around will move ahead less contentiously. Most of the population growth that earned Texas four new seats in Congress is among Latinos and African-Americans, many of whom relocated to Houston from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Florida: The redistricting battle was already in court before the numbers were released. The war is over a new amendment to the state constitution that changes the way district boundaries can be drawn. It passed last fall with 63 percent of the vote. But it was immediately challenged in federal court by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and Mario Diaz-Balart, who claimed the new standards could threaten districts where blacks and/or Hispanics hold majorities. The Florida statehouse soon joined the litigation.

On Wednesday, supporters of the amendment sued Republican Gov. Rich Scott to force him to move ahead and get Justice Department approval needed to make the changes. (Florida, remember, must comply with the Voting Rights Act.)

Although Florida's population is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, Republicans have controlled the statehouse and the governor's office since the 2000 census. Democrats long complained about the GOP's gerrymandered district lines that ensured that two-thirds of the congressional and legislative seats would stay in Republican hands. That helped spawn a citizens group that collected enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

The new amendment prohibits drawing district lines to favor one incumbent over another, or one political party over another. Legislative and congressional districts are required to be compact, equal in population and created by using existing city, county or other geographical boundaries.