GOP Legislators Craft Their Own Redistricting Amendment listen05/04/10 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 billâ€™s GOP sponsor says itâ€™s needed to â€œclarifyâ€ 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.
Thatâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€œcommunities of interestâ€. The effort was led by GOP Senator Mike Haridopolos.
For those people who donâ€™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 thatâ€™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 doesnâ€™t say that they have to implement them.
Theyâ€™re masquerading as people who are trying to â€œclarifyâ€ or fix the Fair Districts Amendments or implement the amendments, but what theyâ€™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 groupâ€™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 arenâ€™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 donâ€™t make these adjustments weâ€™ll be stuck in the courts for years to come because the current amendments, as written, would be unworkable. And Iâ€™m not going to sit by here and let us get into a constitutional quandary; I donâ€™t think itâ€™s good for our nation, let alone for our state.
But Freidin says litigationâ€™s nothing new when it comes to redistricting, and said part of the reason thereâ€™s been so much litigation is because there arenâ€™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 thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re trying to stop it in ways that newspapers have called â€œdespicableâ€ and â€œoffensiveâ€, if we are successful than theyâ€™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.