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Democrats Slam Legislative Redistricting Amendments

House and Senate Democrats demanded Thursday that Republican leaders drop their push for an amendment supporters say will “complement” the FairDistricts reapportionment ballot measures set for the November ballot.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said the proposal set for floor votes in both chambers is designed to confuse voters and undermine the goals of the voter-supported FairDistricts proposals, which would prohibit legislative and congressional district lines from being drawn to help incumbents or political parties.

“We will not be bamboozled or hoodwinked by their proposal they say will clarify Amendments 5 and 6,” Thompson said. “It’s really trying to rig the system to make sure that those now in power remain in power.”

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, has said the Republican-backed redistricting amendment targeted Thursday is designed only to assure that the 2012 redrawing of state and legislative boundaries meet federal standards.

Haridopolos has said that without the proposal, Florida risks weakening minority voting strength and could violate the Voting Rights Act. Two black Democratic legislators are siding with Haridopolos, Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando and Al Lawson of Tallahassee, the Senate Democratic leader.

But the remainder of minority Democratic state legislators gathered Thursday to call on Republicans to drop the measure. They deny that the two FairDistricts measures set for the ballot threaten minority voters.

“This is a farce, and it borders on being a racist amendment,” Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, said of the Republican-backed initiative.

Instead, Democrats fear the proposed amendment backed by Republican leaders could be used to justify packing overwhelmingly Democratic, black voters into a few districts, leaving surrounding districts “bleached” and more Republican-leaning.

A similar approach used to comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings helped Florida Republicans gain more favorable district lines in 1992, eventually leading to the GOP winning control of the Florida Legislature four years later. That was the first time in 122 years Florida Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and they have maintained that grip ever since.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in a North Carolina case, is seen by many experts as promoting such minority packing. Justices narrowed the Voting Rights Act by 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. But the North Carolina ruling is seen by Democrats and some redistricting experts as 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.
 
The Senate's proposed amendments cleared the Ethics and Elections Committee Thursday after testy exchanges between representatives of groups supporting the citizen-written initiatives and members of the panel. Several speakers echoed the Democratic lawmakers, saying the Legislature was being unfair in trying to confuse voters, and that if lawmakers don't like the citizen-proposed amendments they should just work to have them defeated.

Several members of the committee said they took offense at the suggestion that the measures being pushed by the Legislature weren't drafted in good faith.

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