Bipartisanship on both sides of Florida's redistricting process

05/18/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Progressives may not be happy with many of the outcomes of the 2010 midterm elections, but many see the two Fair Districts amendments voters adopted as a victory. But Not everyone is happy that they passed, and there’s even a bipartisan effort to challenge the law, which changes the way legislative districts are drawn.

Some say Florida voters overwhelmingly elected Republicans to the state legislature because the GOP’s election year strategy brought national issues into local campaigns. Some say it was the battered economy and Republican candidates’ promises of tax relief. American Civil Liberties Union of Florida spokesperson Derek Newton said it happened in big part because of how legislative districts are drawn.

"You had a very conservative, right wing dominated, legislature that got elected to create jobs and reform government and spent almost all their time on abortion and school prayer and things of this nature. And that's just a....that's a natural consequence of having districts that aren't competitive. Districts that are set up to and elect and favor a certain party."

Newton and other supporters of Amendments five and six, known as the Fair Districts Amendments, say the new laws will change that. They require the State House committee in charge of drawing electoral districts to draw them in a manner that’s compact and contiguous, and not in any way intentionally favoring one political party over another. State Representative Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, is a member of that bipartisan committee. He said the new Congressional and Legislative districts may still have odd shapes, but be more logically drawn than those forged through gerrymandering.

"Lines don't have to be a perfect square. They don't have to be a perfect circle. They can be a triangle, they can even be rectangular and they can be drawn, some would argue, crazily, along different boundaries such as water, ways, or highways to give us districts that have a certain population of people and a certain demographic."

The house redistricting committee will conduct a series of public hearings over the coming months, and use data from the most recent Census to configure the new districts. The ACLU’s Derek Newton said the process won’t result in districts containing a perfect balance of Republicans and Democrats or exact proportions of people from ethnic backgrounds, but it will better reflect Florida’s demographics.

"There are communities that naturally have more Republicans or Democrats in them, I think that's fine. But that's not the case where we've seen in Florida over the last 2 redisctricting cycles where there are still several hundred thousand more Democrats than Republicans in Florida, for example. Yet the legislature is almost 3/4 Republican. That's because of some very clever line drawing."

Some lawmakers aren’t happy with the new rules. US Representative Corrine Brown is a Jacksonville Democrat. Her district consists of slices from some eight counties, and looks like giant splatter of paint. She said it’s shaped that way to ensure that minority voters will have a say.

"The one time we have a voice in every level of government and this will take these voices away. You've had, at large, 12 districts but this did not represent communities of interest and I think communities of interest is key. To think that for 129 years a state that had 30 percent African Americans and we didn't have any and you talk about going back to that. It is unacceptable. It's crazy."

Brown and Miami US Representative Mario Diaz Balart, a Republican, are suing the state over the new laws. Former state Senator Dan Gelber is legal counsel for Fair Districts Florida. He said the amendments contain wording that safeguards minority voters.

"Fair Districts Amendments actually have in their texts as a requirement that you preserve racial minorities. And in fact the NAACP and '...' were two of the biggest proponents"

Gelber said the only people who are upset are really incumbents concerned about reelection.

"Incumbents feel a little concerned that they won't be able to draw their own districts anymore. That's really what they are concerned about and, frankly, the overreaching and the gerrymandering in Florida was a result of that precise kind of conduct. So I understand why incumbents don't like Fair Districts Amendments."

St. Pete State Rep Darryl Rouson said some legislators, even himself, are at risk of losing their seats should a shift in a district’s demographic makeup really impact how a given district votes.

"I think that some of the minority stronghold districts down in Broward and Dade that might have 60 to 70 percent people of culture will be affected, certainly my district could be affected. It could drop from 51 percent, 52 percent African-American down to about 25 percent, maybe even as low as 15 percent depending on how it's drawn. You know, it'll have quite an impact."

Still, Rouson said, a law is a law.

"All I'm interested in is a fair process. All I'm interested in is following the law as the people approved it at the ballot box and doing what's in the best interest of the citizenry."

He said there is concern that more lawsuits will ensue throughout the process, which could result in an injunction that freezes the law’s carrying out. He said he hopes this doesn’t happen, given the short time between when the districts get redrawn and the 2012 elections.

"There's always that concern that someone will seek an injunction and kind of stop the process. We hope that doesn't happen. We don't have a lot of time to figure these things out and make them work by qualifying on June of 2012. So we can just be prayerful and hopeful that any challenges that come, and they will come, will be disposed of timely and quickly and we can move forward."

Rouson said the committee will hold about 25 hearings throughout the state, including at least one in the Tampa Bay area this summer. The 2012 legislative session will start in January instead of March so the redistricting, if there are no legal stumbling blocks, will be in place well ahead of the 2012 elections.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Redistricting

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