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Florida Senate will vote on redistricting maps this week that aren't what some hoped for

TALLAHASSEE — After a long-fought battle to impose redistricting standards, proponents of the Fair Districts constitutional amendments have new maps — and they're not what they had hoped for.

But the first maps to be voted on by the full Senate this week are not unexpected either.

The maps — one for the state Senate, the other for Congress — each leave intact the controversial minority districts that consolidate Democratic voters in oddly shaped districts. They have deeply divided the Democratic caucus and have forced Democrats to rely on the court to sort the issue out.

"The Legislature's proposals were drawn in violation of the new criteria," said Dan Gelber, a former Democratic state senator from Miami who is now legal counsel to Fair Districts Florida.

The Democrat-leaning Fair Districts group was responsible for gathering petitions to put Amendments 5 and 6 on the November 2010 ballot, and won the support of 63 percent of Florida voters. The anti-gerrymandering amendments prohibit lawmakers from protecting incumbents and political parties, require them to protect minority voting strength and keep county and city boundaries intact whenever possible.

After legislators complete their maps, the Florida Supreme Court must decide if state Senate and House proposals follow the new constitutional standards. A court is also likely to decide the fate of the congressional map, because any Florida voter can file a lawsuit challenging the congressional map as failing to comply with the new standards.

Groups that backed the Fair Districts reforms, including the League of Women Voters, the Latino-based Democracia, Common Cause and the Florida Democratic Party, have submitted alternative maps that Senate leaders have not adopted and could challenge the Senate plan.

"The process followed by the Senate is not unlike what we've always seen before — and that is incumbents continue to draw seats that are more favorable to incumbents and the majority party continues to widen or cement its majority status,'' said Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, also a former state senator.

While Democrats sweat it out, Republicans who control the Senate are not sleeping comfortably yet either.

The prospect of a court forcing them to redo their maps has Sen. Don Gaetz, the chairman of the redistricting committee, urging the Senate to extend the 60-day session — initially for budget reasons — to give them enough time to keep everything in play if the court rejects their plans.

"We could still have time within 60 consecutive days to have a second bite at the apple … to repair any problems with the House, Senate or congressional redistricting plans,'' Gaetz told the Times/Herald last week.

Gaetz and other Republicans defend their maps and point to the bipartisan support they've received when the two plans were voted out of committee with either four or five Democrats in support. The same Democrats are expected to cross party lines to vote out the maps.

"The Senate did a wonderful job making sure they comply with keeping African-American seats and Hispanic seats intact,'' said Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who will vote for both maps.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said she voted on the maps "to move the process along" so that the new political lines will be completed by the June 4 deadline for legislative candidates to file for office.

But Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich, who withdrew her proposed alternative maps last week, said she won't be supporting the Senate maps.

"When every Republican incumbent gets a stronger seat, I question whether it respects the will of the voters,'' she said. "It's incumbency protection."

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who has written a book on Florida's redistricting process, said that she believes that whatever maps are approved, proponents of Fair Districts will be disappointed because the amendments attempted to be too many things for too many people.

"From the beginning, Floridians' expectations about the proposal were splintered,'' she said.

"For some it was to protect minority representation. For others, it was to make districts more compact. And for others it was to bring more fairness and offer a more even playing field. In the end, the process really will never please everyone."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

Florida Senate will vote on redistricting maps this week that aren't what some hoped for 01/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2012 10:11pm]
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