Across the South, state legislatures have rolled out their plans for redrawing political lines -- plans that could be key to shaping upcoming elections in 2011 and 2012.

The new Southern plans are being closely followed because this is the first time in history that redistricting has happened under the watch of a Democratic-controlled Department of Justice, which is required to "pre-clear" or approve plans in nine Southern states covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.*

Most states have held off on devising plans for U.S. Congress, instead focusing on new lines for their state legislatures. The need for DOJ approval has led the largely Republican-controlled states to propose plans which both optimize GOP strength and deflect costly litigation over minority voting rights.

Here's a quick run-down on what's happening in a few key states:

FLORIDA: A huge presidential battleground is shaping up to be one of the most interesting redistricting war zones as well. Last fall, 63% of voters approved a ballot measure that limits the amount of partisan gerrymandering that can be done by state legislators. But Republicans brought a lawsuit -- which was joined by African-American Democrat Corrine Brown of north Florida -- which challenges the law. If it stands, Democrats as a whole could gain; if it falls, Republicans and Rep. Brown would. The state is also holding hearings on proposed new lines for the state legislature.

The DOJ has pre-cleared a plan which increases the number of majority African-American districts from 27 to 29 out of 105 seats. Republicans succeeded in defeating a proposal to create a 30th majority-black district, but there still could be a lawsuit. If not, these lines will hold for the state's 2011 election cycle and beyond.

VIRGINIA: Another state with big 2011 contests -- and also a projected 2012 presidential battleground -- has also received DOJ approval for redistricting 2.0; the first plan was vetoed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who objected to what he saw as "partisan gerrymandering" by Democrats in the state senate. No news of litigation yet.

NORTH CAROLINA: In another key 2012 state, Republicans have revealed 22% of the new state maps, which significantly boost majority-black districts. But in the process, they've so diluted the other districts that elections watchdog Democracy North Carolina calls it a vestige of "separate and equal":
To achieve more districts where African-American adults are a majority, the Republican map makers have corralled black voters into often oddly shaped areas and reduced the number of districts where they can play a pivotal role in electing candidates who support their agenda. This strategy follows the old "separate but equal" philosophy used to justify segregation; it gives the appearance of promoting black interests but actually undermines the ability of black voters to maximize their impact in state politics through a combination of majority-minority and multi-racial coalition districts.
TEXAS: The site of the Great Redistricting Brawl of 2003 is shaping up for another battle. This week, the Republican-led senate voted 19-12 along party lines to send a plan to GOP Gov. Rick Perry for signing. Republicans drew a hard line in opposing the creation of Democratic-friendly districts in places like Tarrant County. The result, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram? "Court challenges are inevitable."

SOUTH CAROLINA: This week the state House approved not just new state legislative districts -- which reflect the state's population shift to the coast -- but also a map for new Congressional districts, including a new seat added after the 2010 Census. In a state that is 27.9% African-American, the GOP-controlled legislature could have created a new majority-black Congressional district, but didn't. The likely result? Lawsuit.


What will happen when the other Southern states do tackle Congressional redistricting? National experts like The Cook Political Report and Stuart Rothenberg have made projections, and they conclude the South will emerge as a major counterweight to Democratic gains in other parts of the country.

In Georgia, for example, they expect Democrats will lose one Congressional seat and Republicans will gain two, according to Cook. In North Carolina, Dems lose two to three districts, with Republicans gaining the same amount. (Fast-growing Florida and Texas will be a wash, with both parties gaining equally.)

So even though California and Illinois will likely see up to eight new Democratic-friendly districts, those will be offset by the GOP's gains in the South. Due to the rightward pull of Republican-controlled Southern legislatures, the net overall gains for Democrats nationally may only amount to two seats.

The South strikes again.

* Five states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) are covered completely. All but one county is covered in Georgia and all but 11 counties in Virginia. 40 counties are covered in North Carolina and five in Florida.