In response to public hearings held here on July 11, the Times Union Editors wrote that Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting process is off to a “good start.” Critics of the legislative redistricting process, however, would point to a series of actions by Governor Scott and lawmakers that might lead to a different conclusion.
Sixty-three percent of voters approved the Fair Districting Amendments on last November’s ballot. Amendment 5 governs reapportioning districts for state house and senate, while Amendment 6 applies to redrawing Florida’s U.S. Congressional districts. Language within the amendments include protections for racial and language minorities, as well as mandates about compactness, contiguity, and equal populations where possible. Population increases reflected in census data grants Florida two new congressional districts.
Voters should remember that lawmakers tried to neutralize the effect of the redistricting amendments by introducing their own “poison pen” Amendment 7, which a judge ultimately struck from the November ballot. Voters should also be aware that some commentators have questioned why the public input hearings did not begin immediately after the passage of the amendment last November, even while approval from the Department of Justice was pending. (The DOJ must sign off on major changes to Florida’s elections laws due to our state’s prior history of voter rights abuses.) Voters should know what’s happened in the intervening nine months.
In December, 2010, soon after the amendments’ passage, former Governor Charlie Crist dutifully asked the Department of Justice to give Florida the green light to implement the new amendments. On January 4, 2011, however, the newly elected governor, Rick Scott, withdrew Governor Crist’s request to the Department of Justice, halting the pre-clearance process. Ten days after that move, the Florida House of Representatives filed an unopposed motion to join the lawsuit brought against the amendments by Reps. Corrine Brown, FL-D-3, and Mario Diaz-Balart, FL –R-21. Brown and Balart-Diaz argue that implementing the amendments would violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by disenfranchising many minority voters, who are currently represented in carefully drawn minority-access districts.
Notably, voting rights organizations including the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU disagree with Brown and Diaz-Balart. They say that drawing districts in compliance with the amendments will ensure that minorities get fair representation, asFlorida’s population grows more and more diverse. Lawmakers, however, have a stake in preserving the current, highly-gerrymandered districts. Currently, Florida’s “bleached” districting strategy painstakingly sections off potentially progressive or moderate voting neighborhoods into a small number of minority-access districts that historically favor democrats. The remaining, more numerous districts contain concentrated numbers of conservatives due to “bleaching.” Both parties get “safe” districts, allowing them to cater only to the extreme elements of their parties in order to get elected without considering moderate voters. Political civility and moderation have become casualties under this scheme.
Since the House of Representatives joined Reps. Brown and Diaz-Balart’s lawsuit, our state government is in the very awkward position of fighting both sides of a single lawsuit—and they’re using about $30 million of our money to do it. Meanwhile, none of our state representatives or senators have, to date, published any redrawn map proposals for public feedback or evaluation. The delay in holding public hearings, the withdrawal of materials submitted to the Department of Justice, the failure to resubmit those materials until March 29, the move to join the lawsuit opposing the amendments, the $30 million legal fund arsenal, and the failure to present draft map proposals—a job we pay lawmakers, not citizens, to do—ought to raise red flags for observers of the process. Voters deserve to know the whole story.
Julie Delegal is a free-lance writer in Jacksonville.
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