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GOP: ‘Fair Districts’ May Clash With Federal Law

A ballot push to overhaul Florida’s redistricting process creates a “Catch-22 situation” that could develop into a legal challenge to initiatives that have drawn strong backing from state Democrats.

House redistricting counsel Miguel De Grandy told a House council Wednesday that the two FairDistrictsFlorida ballot proposals would create new state requirements that could clash with the federal Voting Rights Act.

“I don’t know exactly what that means or how you would apply,” the apparently conflicting standards, De Grandy told the Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning.

Ellen Freidin, a Miami lawyer and chairman of the FairDistricts effort, told the News Service of Florida that 1.6 million signatures have been collected for the 2010 ballot proposals, well on the way toward the level needed to go before voters.

More than one-third of the 676,811 signatures needed for ballot approval have been verified by the Florida Secretary of State.

The measures – one covering legislative districts and the other congressional – would require that voting districts be compact, contiguous, and respect city and county boundaries when possible. Line-drawing would be prohibited that was designed to favor incumbent politicians or political parties.

But De Grandy warned that because the Voting Rights Act requires that at least some districts have a majority or heavy plurality of minority voters – in an effort to elect black or Hispanic legislators – that standard could clash with terms of the FairDistricts measure.

Freidin said that so far there has been no organized opposition to the proposals which are being pushed by activists allied with both Democrats and Republicans, but De Grandy’s warning was quickly embraced by Council Chair Dean Cannon.

Cannon, in line to be House speaker when redistricting occurs in 2012, stopped short of saying the House would consider a lawsuit challenging the measures. But he acknowledged, “I intend to seek additional information from our counsel.”

“Because one of the things he mentioned that I think is significant is the tight and physically limiting time frames between reapportionment and when we have elections in 2012,” Cannon said.

“The last thing we need is another 2000 election cycle,” he added. “Ambigiuities and uncertainties are the enemies of an orderly, fair election.”

The new political boundaries could prove pivotal to both Democrats and Republicans. While registered Democratic voters substantially outnumber Republicans in Florida, the district lines drawn in 1992 and 2002 helped the GOP capture two-thirds of the state’s congressional delegation and dominate the state House and Senate.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that the language of the proposals is constitutional and can go before voters if sufficient signatures are collected.

Democrats are intent on getting legislative and congressional district boundaries set that are more fair to their candidates and realize the Republican-controlled Legislature may blunt these efforts. Most Republican leaders are wary of the FairDistricts plan, which has been promoted heavily at state and local Democratic gatherings.

A News Service of Florida analysis shows that much of the $2.5 million raised by FairDistricts for its signature-gathering campaign has come from Democratic-allied individuals and organizations. The largest contributor has been the Service Employees International Union, which has donated $225,000 through the Sept. 30 reporting period.

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