Redistricting Amendments Will Battle It Out This November
Republican lawmakers drove a proposed constitutional amendment through a House council Thursday, saying the measure is needed to expand on a pair of Democratic-backed redistricting proposals already set for the November ballot.
But Democrats said the real intent of the late-developing measure is to confuse voters who polls show are expected to support the FairDistricts Florida amendments set to go before voters this fall. Amendments 4 and 5 ask voters to bar legislators from drawing legislative or congressional district lines that benefit political parties or incumbent lawmakers.
“I think it’s going to cause a massive amount of confusion,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. “And I think it’s unnecessary confusion.”
Despite opposition from Thurston and other Democrats, the Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning voted 11-5 to approve putting an additional measure on the ballot requiring that lawmakers meet federal redistricting standards when they meet the once-a-decade task of redrawing political boundaries in 2012.
Republicans say the FairDistricts proposals could be interpreted as threatening districts currently represented by minorities, since maintaining these seats could be considered helping an incumbent or party. Florida’s black members of Congress are all Democrats, while only one black Republican serves in the Legislature.
“The concerns are real and many,” said Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who sponsored the proposed joint resolution, which needs to be approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate to go on the ballot. Spurred by Senate Reapportionment Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, that chamber’s Republican leaders also say the proposal is needed.
Financed heavily by major Democratic contributors, particularly the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and Service Employees International Union, FairDistricts successfully gathered 676,811 signatures for each of the ballot initiatives. One measure covers legislative districts and the other congressional, and requires that voting districts be compact, contiguous and respect city and county boundaries when possible.
House and Senate Democrats say there’s nothing in FairDistricts’ amendments that undermine minority safeguards contained in the Voting Rights Act, and that most of the confusion surrounding the issue has been created by Republicans fanning such fears.
Among those opposing the measure Thursday were the Communications Workers of America, SEIU, the FEA and the Florida League of Women Voters. Supporting the measure was Associated Industries of Florida.
FairDistricts did not speak publicly at Thursday meeting. But Ellen Freidin, chairman of the campaign, earlier blasted the ballot move by House and Senate Republicans.
“Their proposed amendment is a blatant power grab – a last gasp attempt to avoid having to follow fairness rules put on the ballot by the citizens they are supposed to represent,” Freidin said.
But at least two minority members of Florida’s congressional delegation, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, have also questioned the FairDistricts approach, along with Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, chairman of the 26-member Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, which has split with him by supporting FairDistricts.
Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Fleming Island, said the newly crafted, Republican-backed amendment “serves to complement,” the FairDistricts approach.
Redistricting in 2012 clearly is pivotal to both Democrats and Republicans. While Democratic registration in Florida exceeds Republican strength by more than 700,000 voters, the district lines drawn in 1992 and 2002 helped the GOP capture two-thirds of the state’s congressional delegation while dominating the state House and Senate.
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale is fragmented into four congressional districts. Brown, the Jacksonville Democrat, represents a district stretching 140 miles and spanning nine counties. Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica represents parts of six counties, including a sliver of Orange County that also contains his Winter Park home.
Inconsistencies also abound in the Legislature. Orange County, once a Republican stronghold, has shifted to where 44 percent of registered voters are now Democrats, compared with 31 percent GOP. Republicans, though, hold nine of 12 state House seats that include a portion of the county, along with three out of four Senate seats.
Council Chairman Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, on Thursday also said the Republican-powered ballot initiative is needed to protect Florida minority districts in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on redistricting last year.
Ruling in a North Carolina case, justices narrowed the Voting Rights Act, saying it does not require states to draw so-called crossover districts where minorities have a good chance of winning, even without a majority of the voting population
Most Florida districts electing black or Hispanic lawmakers have less than 50 percent minority voters. The ruling is seen by some redistricting experts have nudging states toward concentrating minorities in districts where they can form a majority of the voting population to assure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Such action would lessen black representation in Florida. But by packing overwhelmingly Democratic, black voters into a few districts, surrounding districts would become increasingly white and more Republican-leaning, critics have said.
“It really might create fewer minority districts,” Cannon said.