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Florida restarts process to clear voter-approved redistricting standards

TALLAHASSEE — Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature on Tuesday asked the federal government to sign off on a pair of voter-approved constitutional amendments requiring lawmakers to draw nonpartisan political districts.

The move comes three months after Gov. Rick Scott drew partisan criticism — and was quickly sued — for quietly withdrawing the application submitted by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

But authors of Amendments 5 and 6 said the new request "contains a number of statements that are clearly intended to undermine the intent" of the changes. The application explains that the changes could potentially hurt minority voting strength, but would not if "properly interpreted."

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat now affiliated with Fair Districts Now, the group that put the questions on the statewide ballot, said in a statement that he would likely file concerns with the Justice Department.

The back-and-forth was just the latest twist for a pair of amendments that aim to stop lawmakers from drawing legislative or congressional districts that favor a particular political party. Lawmakers must finish drawing new Florida districts, including two new U.S. House seats, before the 2012 elections.

Scott said in January that withdrawing the application was part of his push to review all new rules and regulations.

But supporters of the amendments accused Scott of obstructing the will of voters and sued him. On Friday, Scott was given an extension to respond.

Scott's staff, along with attorneys from the House, Senate and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, determined the Legislature — not the governor — is the proper authority to submit the application.

Republican leaders said the initial application did not address "retrogression," a legal term that refers to whether a redistricting plan reduces minority voting strength. That's an issue because the federal government must approve major elections changes in Florida after the history of racial discrimination and voter intimidation in five counties: Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe.

"Despite pressure from special interest groups, I committed to Floridians that my review of the preclearance application for Amendments 5 and 6 would be thorough and complete," Scott said in a statement. "The action of legislative leaders today delivers on that promise."

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the submission was the first positive thing the Republican Legislature has done all session.

"If there was anything that received a mandate in the last election, it was Amendments 5 and 6," Rich said. "So I would say they did the appropriate thing. I am very pleased that they would do that. In that sense, they are listening to the people."

Also at play is a lawsuit brought by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, alleging that Amendment 6 is unconstitutional. The Florida House has joined in the lawsuit.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Florida restarts process to clear voter-approved redistricting standards 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:33pm]
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