Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

New maps drawn, redistricting battle heads to court

TALLAHASSEE — After months of polite posturing among Republican legislative leaders and proponents of the state's new anti-gerrymandering redistricting rules, the debate turned hostile on Thursday.

Only moments after the Florida Senate gave final approval to the state's political maps for the next decade, the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging the newly drawn congressional map as unconstitutional. A coalition of voter groups then pronounced its plan to go to court with a similar lawsuit.

"The Legislature's congressional plan is filled with unconstitutional political gerrymanders intended to favor one political party and certain incumbents, while disfavoring the other political party and other incumbents,'' wrote lawyers for the League of Women Voters, the Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause.

Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement that he hoped the courts will "step in to implement the will of the people — a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish."

Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who has shepherded the Senate's redistricting process for the past seven months, said he expected the legal challenges.

"We have people who all along had a lawsuit strategy and hoped that they could find some judge somewhere who will agree with their contentions,'' Gaetz told reporters. "The sad part is now the taxpayers of Florida have to be dragged into court by special interest groups who always intended to be dissatisfied."

A protracted volley of lawsuits is now likely as the Democrat-leaning groups that worked to embed the new redistricting rules into the state Constitution find fault with the product produced by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Senate vote Thursday culminated a seven-month exercise that included unprecedented public input, through the aid of technology, and was driven by Florida voters demanding a fairer process of redrawing political boundaries. But new guidelines imposed by the Fair Districts amendments, and approved by voters in 2010, prohibit lawmakers from protecting incumbents and political parties when redrawing their maps to reflect changes in the population. The new rules also required that they make districts more compact and that they protect minority voting strength.

The Democratic groups say that legislators failed, at least on the congressional map, even though it was approved Thursday on a 32-5 vote, with six Democrats siding with the Republican majority. It must now be signed by the governor.

The state House and Senate maps, approved by the Senate 31-7, go to the attorney general, who is expected to immediately send them to the Florida Supreme Court. The high court has 30 days to determine if they comply with the state's redistricting standards and, if they don't, will give lawmakers another chance to draw them again.

The lawsuit to be brought by the voters coalition alleges that U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz Balart, of Miami, and Dan Webster, of Orlando, attempted "to influence members of the Legislature and its staff to 'improve' the composition of the new districts to make them more favorable.'' It suggests legislators intentionally rejected a fairer alternative plan, and that they packed minorities into districts to diminish their influence in surrounding districts and therefore "diminished their ability to participate in the political process."

It cites District 20, the newly drawn Broward and Palm Beach-based district, recently abandoned by GOP Rep. Allen West, as illogically drawn. "At one point, the northernmost appendage is barely wide enough to cover half of a highway and an elementary school," the lawsuit says.

Former Delray Beach state Rep. Adam Hasner left the U.S. Senate race to announce he will run in the new District 20 seat and face Democratic challengers Lois Frankel and Kristen Jacobs. West is moving further north to compete for the 16th congressional seat vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who is also moving to another district.

Armed with a cart full of legal binders and prepared statements, Gaetz defended the maps with vigor Thursday, anticipating every argument challengers mounted. He denied Diaz Balart or Webster ever "have spoken to me about these maps."

The lawsuit claims that Florida's presence as a presidential battleground state — having nearly split its vote between Democrat and Republican candidates in nearly every major statewide election for the last decade — justifies an evenly drawn congressional map.

But they argue that the congressional map is designed to create twice as many safe Republican seats as Democratic seats in the 27-member congressional delegation. The remaining competitive districts, they allege, favor Republicans by a 5 to 1 advantage.

An independent Times/Herald analysis of voter trends found that there were 16 safe Republican seats and 9 safe Democratic seats with two true toss-up districts.

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