Voting rights groups file suit against Amendment 7 listen05/24/10 Lisa Marzilli
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It was only a matter of time before litigation was filed against the controversial redistricting amendment pushed through by GOP legislators in the final hours of the 2010 session. Last Friday, the League of Women Voters along with the NAACP and Democracia Ahora did just that.
The groups filed suit to have Amendment 7 tossed from the November ballot. Supporters say their amendment is needed to “clarify” the two Fair District amendments, citizen initiatives that over 1.5 million people helped get on the ballot. Amendments 5 and 6 seek to establish fairer rules for redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts in 2012. Deirdre MacNab is president of the League of Women Voters.
There is a lack of accountability in the way our system is set up today in Florida. The other day, I spoke to a group of 400 Rotarians, the community I live in ... is Winter Park, and I asked those attending — this is a very plugged-in, knowledgeable group of people, very involved in their community — I said, “Would you raise your hand, please,if you know the name of your congressperson and/or your state legislator?” Two people raised their hands, and one of them was a former state legislator.
This is made very complicated because of the way the lines are drawn. And the bottom line is that our elected officials decide who they want to have vote for them, instead of allowing voters to pick their elected officials. We have almost a hundred percent of our incumbents returned to office. We have huge numbers of uncompetitive races where there is only one candidate. And that, very simply, is not in the best interest of Florida's citizens of good government, and of creating an atmosphere of the kind of competition that citizens need and deserve in their elections.
Our lawsuit takes this to the courts, and says to the court, “We ask you to look at the language in Amendment 7, and see if you think, in your judgment, this is fair and truthful language that really does set standards.” Because we think the language is tricky and clearly, when lawyers look at it, you can see that it does not set standards.
Q. I'd like to ask you about Senators Gary Siplin and Al Lawson, both members of the state's black legislative caucus. And they both rigorously backed Amendment 7. Senator Haridopolos, when I spoke to him, he spearheaded the amendment, he's expressed concern that incumbent minority seats like Siflin and Lawson's could be in jeopardy when the lines are drawn in 2012 if their districts pass as is, and that that would violate federal equal-protection provisions. And I ask you and your group, is that a valid worry?
It's a very good question, and no, that is not a valid worry. Basically, I cannot, nor can anybody, guarantee what the final lines will look like. But the Amendments 5 and 6, which we put on the ballot with the NAACP and other groups, very specifically says that the national voting rights laws will be followed, period. And those laws protect minority voting rights, and ensure that minorities will have representation in the state of Florida.
However, Amendment 7, which Senator Haridopolous and others have said they crafted specifically with concern of minority voting rights, uses the word “may” take minority voting rights into consideration — not “shall.” They therefore have very cleverly written an amendment which takes us right back to today, where the National Voting Rights Law's requirements are not very clearly protected in the Florida Constitution.
Q. Let me ask you about the amendment's placement on the ballot directly following the Fair District amendments that you have alluded to. Some are claiming that maybe Republican legislators are anticipating that voters will see three amendments, all pertaining to redistricting, maybe not read all three thoroughly, and then vote yes on all of them, thereby basically nullifying the Fair District amendment. Is there any credence to that?
I think you've hit the nail right on the head. The Amendment 7, the legislators put on to protect their own interests, says in the language that all other amendments having to do with Fair Districts will be subordinated to Amendment 7. So in other words, you might not have wasted time even reading 5 and 6, because Amendment 7, if it is able to remain on the ballot, and the courts don't strike it out, and citizens are confused enough to vote for it, it will be the one that counts, and it will take us right back to where we are today. And that's why we think the law calls in this state for ballot amendments to be clear and truthful,we think, along with our co-plaintiffs, that this very much is not truthful. And it is deceit, and it is a trick, and it is designed carefully to fool the voters.
Q. So in the meantime, can we expect a public awareness campaign from groups like yours, if in fact the amendment is not knocked off the ballot?
I'm so glad you asked that. Yes, indeed; the League of Women Voters will be doing a lot of educating. Our core mission is turning out Florida voters, and making sure they have the information they need to cast an informed vote during election time. So we are encouraging everybody to go to voteanywhere.org, which is our website, which takes you right to the supervisor of elections. Make sure that your registration is up to date. Find out the three ways to vote, which are voting by mail, which is a ballot that is sent to your home; voting early; voting on Election Day.
And we will have, as we get a little closer to the election, full information on the different candidates for state office, and on the ten ballot amendments that there will be in this year's November ballot. There will be ten different ballot amendments, and Florida citizens know that when they go to the polls, that things can be complicated. So we are going to arm citizens with clear information, with pros and cons, and what these ballot amendments actually purport that they will do.