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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Rod Smith predicts courts will decide district maps, legislature will create court record



Rod Smith Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith told a redistricting forum Tuesday night that reapportionment "is all I think about these days" and predicts the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries will veer off along an unprecedented path next year as lawmakers apply new guidelines imposed by voters.

Legislators will vote on the first round of maps in committee in December and take them up when they convene in special session in January. But Smith is skeptical they will succeed without judicial input and believes the legislature's role will be to create the court record.

The reason, he told about 40 people at the public forum at the Leon County Public Library Tuesday night, is that the state's shifting minority population as well as the requirements of the Fair Districts amendments to the constitution "are carving new ground here...The United States Supreme Court will be the final arbitor."

Smith acknowledged what everyone in Tallahassee has known but few have admitted: "Do we have maps? Yes. Several of them. Will I show them to anybody right now? No. It's like any card game. I'll show them when they're ready to be played."

On the other hand, he said, there is a chance that there will be no official maps coming from any political party for fear it will be perceived as a violation of Amendments 5 and 6 which ban redistricting for the purpose of partisan advantage of incumbent protection.

Smith, a former state senator, said that in the past legislators of both parties would get together privatey and draw a map that protected each of their own re-election bids and then present the map togtether. No more. "It can't be a bi-partisan map if it has to be a non-partisan map,'' he said.

The "most complicating factor" in complying with Amendments 5 and 6 is the Voting Rights Act, Smith said. The 1965 federal law requires that state political boundaries protect against systematic disenfranchisement of minorities. But overlaying those protections over the requirements of the newly-enacted amendments pose new questions that only the courts are likely to answer. Among them:

* What happens if the change in districts boundaries is driven by the population changes in a region, forcing a minority district to take a different path? U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown's Jacksonville-based district is one example. For her district to retain the same number of minority voters to keep it a minority-majority seat, it will have to swing south into Palatka and Daytona Beach, thereby upsetting every congressional district along its path.

* Do you draw the map taking into account minority districts first, to accommdate the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, or do you draw the map according to the Fair District amendments first and then overlay the conditions of the VRA? "It makes a difference,'' Smith said.

* How will the court decide what is considered retrogression -- the dilution of minority voting strenght? Will they consider the net access to minority seats in the whole state, or will they consider the access to existing seats?

Smith predicted "there will be a tremendous battle in the Legislature" when lawmakers convene to draw the maps in January. "But it will all be about getting things into the record." That's because the general consensus among most political observers is that the final districts "will be determined by the courts."

Every map submitted by an individual or a special interest will have value to the process anda he believes that the new rules will not guarantee either party added advantage in the next election cycle. "What you win is a series of opportunities,'' he said. For example, Florida has seven state Senate districts that could be considered swing districts for Democrats and two state Senate districts that just barely lean Republican. Each of those are held by Republican incumbents, he said, because Democrats have failed to field candidates that can win them.

Redistricting "will not change the landscape of the politics of Florida,'' he said. "It will change the opportunity for it to take place."

Smith predicts that many of those questions will be ultimately answered by the U.S. Supreme Court as Florida and other states that have similar prohibitions against partisan and incumbency protection also try to comply with the Voting Rights Act provisions. In that case, those challenges, he said, could take years. "What happens in this time will have tremendous consequences,'' he said.

The Legislature will have three options when drawing its districts: drawing districts that lean Republican, those that lean Democratic or those that are much more competitive. Meanwhile, as the maps are reviewed by the court, candidates for Congress and the state legislature will live in limbo. "Will we get it done in time for this election? It is possible" but there may be people running in districts very different than they imagined. Any delay by legislative leadership, he said, will serve to benefit incumbents.

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 1:03pm]


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