TALLAHASSEE — Two voter-approved constitutional amendments requiring the Legislature to draw political districts along nonpartisan standards could be jeopardized by one of Gov. Rick Scott's first acts.
Three days after Scott took office, the state quietly withdrew its request that the U.S. Justice Department approve Amendments 5 and 6 as required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively stalling their implementation just as a Republican-led lawsuit challenges their constitutionality.
At the time, Scott was recruiting as his top elections adviser Kurt Browning, who actively campaigned against the two ballot measures last year while not working for the state. Browning's spokesman said he had no role in the decision.
"One of the things that we're looking at is the amendments that were passed, how they're going to be implemented," Scott told reporters in Jacksonville on Tuesday. "We want to make sure that with regard to redistricting, it's fair, it's the right way of doing it. So it's something I'm clearly focused on."
Scott's deputy communications director, Brian Hughes, said the withdrawal letter was prompted by Scott's desire to assess all state rules and regulations. Hughes added: "Census data has not been transmitted to the state yet, and the Legislature will not undertake redistricting for months, so this withdrawal in no way impedes the process of redrawing Florida's legislative and congressional districts."
Voters strongly endorsed both measures, each receiving more than 3 million votes, while Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature opposed them.
The move injects more partisanship into the politically charged process known as reapportionment and drew criticism from Fair Districts Now, the group that worked for the amendments' passage.
"More than 3.1 million Floridians voted for these reforms in November, and your actions seem calculated to obstruct their implementation," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, the Democratic candidate for attorney general in November and counsel to Fair Districts Now. "Further, Floridians have a right to know why their secretary of state and their governor are engaging in a course of conduct so clearly intended to frustrate their will as expressed at the polls."
The two changes to the state Constitution require approval by the Justice Department because they affect voting standards for racial and ethnic minorities in Florida, a process known as "preclearance" under the Voting Rights Act.
Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter to the federal government in December asking for preclearance. But on Jan. 7, three days after Scott took office, the Department of State sent a one-sentence letter to the Justice Department Voting Rights Section that said "The Florida Department of State withdraws the above-referenced submission."
The Justice Department had no immediate comment.
The amendments are already the target of a federal lawsuit filed by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who contend the changes violate the voting rights laws. On Monday, the Florida House of Representatives signed on to that lawsuit. The Florida Democratic Party plans to intervene on behalf of Fair Districts Now.
Browning, a former Pasco County elections supervisor, resigned as Crist's secretary of state in April 2010. Scott rehired him after he was sworn in Jan. 4.
While out of office, Browning served as the unpaid chairman of Protect Your Vote, a political action committee that raised nearly $4 million, more than half of it from the Republican Party of Florida, in an attempt to defeat Amendments 5 and 6.
Realtors, sugar growers, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, TECO Energy and other GOP-aligned groups also donated generously to the PAC.
Browning's spokesman, Trey Stapleton, said Browning had not yet returned to the agency when the Scott administration made the decision to withdraw the preclearance request.
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.