GOP Legislators Craft Their Own Redistricting Amendment

05/04/10 Lisa Marzilli
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Voters get ready: another state constitutional amendment is headed for the crowded November ballot. On Friday, the last day of the legislative session, the Florida Senate voted to approve its own redistricting proposal. The bill’s GOP sponsor says it’s needed to “clarify” the two redistricting amendments put forth by the group Fair Districts Florida. But opponents say the effort is nothing short of a power grab designed to gut the citizen initiatives and maintain the status quo.

We have a great opportunity here to make a very significant change in Florida. This will end to a great degree, the horrible partisanship that has been grid locking our state and create fairer elections for all Floridians.

That’s Ellen Freidin, campaign chair of Fair Districts Florida. The mission of the bipartisan group is as simple as its name: to end the gerrymandering of congressional districts that favors the political party that’s drawing the maps. Fair Districts Florida collected almost 1.7 million signatures to help get two amendments on the November ballot that will establish fairer standards for redrawing the districts, which takes place next in 2012. The amendments simply say district lines cannot be drawn to favor any incumbent or political party or deny minorities from having equal access to the political process. The district lines would also have to be as compact as possible.

But the initiatives are not sitting well with Tallahassee Republicans. Once Amendments 5 and 6 made the ballot, they went to work on a competing amendment they say is needed to maintain “communities of interest”. The effort was led by GOP Senator Mike Haridopolos.

For those people who don’t know, we did not have an African American member of U.S. Congress until 1992 in Florida, with the good work of Corrine Brown. And with that in place, those African American and Hispanic members said, you know what; we have great concerns that if this thing passes that it will reduce the number of minority seats.

Two minority Democrats have also sided with Republicans causing a racial rift within the legislature.

So I asked the leader of the Black Caucus in the Florida Senate, Gary Siplin, a Senator out of Orlando, to draw up an additional amendment to give comfort to those minority members who are afraid that if Fair Districts passes as is, that minority representation would be reduced. So he drew up the amendment. Republicans and Democrats came together to overwhelmingly vote in support of the amendment because we do not want to regress. We need to make sure that we do not lose the gains we have made; to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to run and win a seat in Congress.

But that’s not how Ellen Freidin sees it. She calls the amendment insulting because it only says that the legislature has to consider minority voting rights, it doesn’t say that they have to implement them.

They’re masquerading as people who are trying to “clarify” or fix the Fair Districts Amendments or implement the amendments, but what they’re really trying to do is retain their own power to draw districts that give them an unfair political advantage and insure that they can never lose their seats.

And Freidin says she does not know why Senator Siplin is not backing her group’s efforts.

What I do know is that neutral groups, people have no interest in this other than seeing that the right thing is done, like the Florida NAACP and like the entire Black Legislative Caucus, other than Senator Siplin, have approved our amendments. They contain provisions that aren’t contained anywhere else in Florida law that would protect minority voting rights and would provide that minority voters have equal opportunity.

If you need proof that gerrymandering works, you need look no further than the last two elections. In the 2008 election every Republican incumbent retained his or her seat in the state legislature. And in 2004 not one legislative or congressional incumbent lost a re-election bid. One of the fears with the Fair Districts amendments Haridopolos says is that they will lead to extensive litigation.

Every legal opinion we received says if we don’t make these adjustments we’ll be stuck in the courts for years to come because the current amendments, as written, would be unworkable. And I’m not going to sit by here and let us get into a constitutional quandary; I don’t think it’s good for our nation, let alone for our state.

But Freidin says litigation’s nothing new when it comes to redistricting, and said part of the reason there’s been so much litigation is because there aren’t any rules.

If we are successful in passing the Fair Districts Amendments, which I believe we will be because they are really popular with the people of Florida and I think Mr. Haridopolos knows that, and that’s why they’re trying to stop it in ways that newspapers have called “despicable” and “offensive”, if we are successful than they’ll have to play by the rules, the citizens' rules, rather than their own, that they make up as they go along.

Three Republican Senators bucked their party to oppose the amendment: Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who is also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination; Alex Villalobos of Miami and Rudy Garcia of Hialeah.

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When in doubt

assume that 99% of Republican bills mean the exact opposite of what is said to be the objective. Regarding the knee-jerk reaction to Amendments 5 and 6 it means that the Republicans are scared that their safe and cozy world would not remain if 5 and 6 passed. So, assume that "clarify" means the opposite and vote accordingly.