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Between the Lines: 5 Unknowns as 2012 Begins

So many House districts undefined, and so many questions left unanswered.

As the new year begins, just 28 new Congressional maps are in the can, with a few awaiting approval from the Justice Department and several more the subject of lawsuits.

As a result, thereís still a lot of unsettled territory on the redistricting landscape.

Most importantly, which party will pick up more seats following the once-in-a-decade redraw? Republicans were initially believed to have had an advantage thanks to the massive gains they made in state legislatures, which mostly control the pen. But Democrats caught several lucky breaks in the courts that have softened that blow.

Hereís a look at the greatest redistricting unknowns left this cycle.

1. How far will the Supreme Court reach in its decision about the Texas map?

The Supreme Court even surprised Republicans by granting the GOPís request for a stay on a lower federal courtís prescribed Lone Star State map that favored Democrats. The high court scheduled opening arguments for early January, after which the justices will determine whether a federal three-judge panel overstepped its bounds with its redraw.

There are four new Texas House seats at stake in the case, and each party stands to pick up at least a couple of them depending on how the lines are drawn.

But the Supreme Court could choose to decide so much more in this case. Itís within the courtís authority to bring up other redistricting legal concerns in its ruling ó even the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Top Republicans have long questioned whether that part of the VRA is constitutional. For example, House Republicansí point man on redistricting, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), voted against VRA reauthorization in 2006 because he believes itís unfair only some states ó such as Texas and Georgia ó require Justice Department preclearance under Section 5.

Ironically, if the Supreme Court included VRA commentary in its final decision on Texas, Democrats might stand to benefit more. Section 5 requirements force mapmakers to pack minority voters into single House districts to retain their influence. Mapmakers could spread out the minority populations ó who tend to vote for Democrats ó to make nearby districts more competitive.

2. How will federal courts interpret the Fair Districts law in Florida?

Florida is one of the maps yet to be finished ó and itís also one of the most important. A boom in the Hispanic population gave the state two new House seats in 2012, plus many more already competitive seats are at stake depending on the new lines.

Florida lawmakers have released several draft maps, some of which put GOP Reps. Allen West and Tom Rooney on unstable re-election turf.

But those maps might be a moot point by this spring. Federal courts could hold the cartography pen in what most political insiders expect to be a drawn-out legal battle.

The Florida maps must adhere to the stateís new Fair Districts law, which forces mapmakers to construct districts that are, well, fair. Itís a new law, so itís anyoneís guess how the courts will interpret it for the new maps.

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