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Manatee might get another seat in U.S. Congress

MANATEE — Due to population growth in eastern parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, the area could potentially add another U.S. congressional seat in the redistricting process that follows the 2010 census, officials said this week.

“It’s more than likely our area would get one, the state could get two,” said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who expects to be among those appointed to a legislative committee charged with drawing new boundaries for political districts once the national census concludes.

“One reason we may qualify, Lakewood Ranch is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state,” said Bennett.

When asked if he might file to run for a newly created congressional seat if it materializes, Bennett laughed and replied, “Have a nice day.”

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who recently announced he would run in 2012 for the state Senate seat now occupied by the term-limited Bennett, seconded his colleague’s opinion that another congressional seat might be in the offing.

“I think it’s possible, given the increase in the population in the state of Florida, especially in our area,” said Galvano.

“We’ve had a tremendous population increase in the eastern part of our county and eastern Sarasota,” he added. “The redistricting committee would have to see the numbers and decide how to divide it.”

Galvano explained that redistricting as it stands now is a legislative function in which lawmakers pass a redistricting map, much like they do when passing other legislative acts or bills.

However, the way it’s done may change if a non-partisan group is successful in collecting enough signatures to put two constitutional amendments on the 2010 ballot. The group wants to overhaul what it considers the convoluted way political districts are drawn in Florida.

Critics of redistricting — the wonky-sounding but politically charged process of crafting voting districts for members of Congress and the Florida Legislature — say under the current system, politicians can choose which voters will be in their districts for the election result they want.

Once each decade, using sophisticated computer technology that maps voters by party, race, income and even churchgoing frequency, the ruling party in Tallahassee gets to customize districts to protect powerful incumbents and imperil political opponents, advocates for a new system contend.

“The system is rigged,” said Ellen Freidin, campaign chairwoman of FairDistricts, a non-partisan group leading a petition drive to overhaul redistricting. “When legislators sit down to draw the lines, it’s like they are sitting down to play poker and they get to pick the cards that they want.”

The group aims to collect 676,811 signatures statewide by Feb. 1. to put two constitutional amendments on the 2010 ballot, before redistricting begins. The number of signatures unofficially validated this week stood at 145,157, according to the Florida Division of Elections Web site.

The amendments say congressional and legislative voting districts should not be designed to favor an incumbent or political party. They should be neatly-shaped, and take city and county boundaries into account.

“It is a political exercise,” said local political analyst Michael “Todd” Smallwood, a professor at Manatee Community College. “Because the redistricting is done by the state assembly, obviously the party with the majority has the decision-making ability where to draw the lines.”

“Whether it’s done by Democrats, Republicans or independents, they favor themselves,” he said. “For example in Florida, with the Republican-controlled assembly, you can be sure that in redrawing the lines, the Republican Party will redraw so it will help re-elect existing or new Republicans.”

— The Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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