The State Legislature has approved two redistricting plans that have infuriated Democrats and community groups. After months of controversy and discussions on the issue, the Republican-controlled House and Senate approved a congressional and legislative plan drawing new district lines, a process that takes place every 10 years in order to reflect changes in population as proved by Census data.
According to numbers collected by the Census, Florida’s populations has grown by more than two million securing two additional seats in the U.S. Congress.
At the state level, the new map will add two congressional districts for a total of 27.
Critics of the process and the new district lines, mostly Democrats, have said the Republicans violated anti-gerrymandering standards and the two Fair Districts amendments passed byFloridavoters. They have filed legal action at state Circuit Court.
The lawsuit only challenges the congressional plan, which was sent to Governor Rick Scott for approval, but has not been signed into a law yet.
The legislative plan has been sent to the Florida Supreme Court, which will begin hearing oral arguments on Feb. 29 and will have 10 days, after that, to make a decision. Democrats plan to oppose this plan as well.
Fair Districts amendments 5 and 6 were approved by 63% ofFloridavoters in 2010 with the purpose of eliminating gerrymandering, that lines be drawn to favor political parties or incumbents, and to protect participation of racial and language minorities in the political process. It also calls for districts to be drawn in a compact way using political and geographic boundaries, when feasible.
Republicans contend the new districts were not drawn illegally or with the purpose of favoring the GOP or incumbents. If this happened, it was an unintentional result of the process, said Senate Reapportionment committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican.
A Democrat-controlled Legislature drew districts 20 years ago, although this didn’t prevent Republicans from becoming the majority years later.
Gaetz saw the lawsuit coming.
“We were told … that we would be sued no matter what the lines were, no matter how the districts were drawn,” he said. “My father used to say, ‘Some people would complain if you hung them with a new rope,’ and I think we had people who all along had a lawsuit strategy and hoped that somehow they could find some judge, somewhere, who would agree with their contentions.”
African American legislators found the rope comment to be offensive.
A coalition of nonpartisan community organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Florida (LWV), The National Council of La Raza, and Common CauseFlorida, has announced they too plan to challenge the map if Scott signs it into law. The Coalition believes the proposed map violates the Fair Districts amendments violating traditional principles of equal population, compactness, contiguity and respect for political and geographical boundaries. It is filled with political unconstitutional gerrymanders, they claim.
The lawsuit has already been written against Florida State Secretary Kurt Browning, the Florida Senate and the Florida House of Representatives, as well as their respective leaders, Mike Haridopolos and Dean Cannon.
Among other allegations, the group claims public hearings were held for voters to voice their opinions, but that the maps were never revealed.
“The Legislature’s proposed Congressional map does not reflect the totality of public opinion expressed at the hearings. Rather, legislators cherry-picked statements from the public hearings to support their preferred plan or to justify particular elements in the map before their chamber, and ignored the balance of public opinion,” contends the lawsuit.
The Coalition has also emphasized thatFloridavoters are split down the middle when it comes to voting for Democrats or Republicans. The maps do not reflect this trend.
“The State’s intentional and purposeful use of the redistricting process to preserve one-party control and secure various incumbents’ reelection undermines the voters’ will and violates the Florida Constitution.”
The Coalition contends Republicans are favored with twice as many safe seats as Democrats, under the congressional plan.
The groups also have accused Republican legislators Mario Diaz-Balart and Daniel Webster of taking “affirmative steps to influence members of the Legislature and its staff to ‘improve’ the composition of their new districts to make them more favorable.”
Diaz-Balart denied any wrongdoing. “The allegations are an absolute and total fabrication,” Diaz-Balart told the Orlando Sun Sentinel. “I have never spoken to any legislator about making districts more favorable to myself or anyone else.”
Diaz-Balart had challenged amendment 6 claiming the power to change congressional redistricting rules resided solely with the Legislature and not voters. The court ruled against him and upheld the law.
The Coalition had proposed district maps following the “nesting” approach, which calls for the housing of three House district in each Senate district and prevents cross-cutting district lines. On an 11-page letter addressed to House Redistricting Committee Chariman Will Weatherford, the Coalition explained how this idea would eliminate confusion among voters and give them the advantage of having a more efficient and logical form of representation.
The plan was rejected and some Republicans believed it would not have passed the compacted test laid out under the Fair Districts amendment.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the LWV said her organization has been fighting for voters’ rights for over 70 years and this is what they intend to continue doing.
The final map needs to be reviewed by the U.S Justice Department to insure it complies with the Voting Rights Act.