The Tampa Tribune

William March | The Tampa Tribune | 03/14/2011

TALLAHASSEE - Despite the impending arrival of the final 2010 Census redistricting data, Gov. Rick Scott still isn't saying when or whether he'll seek federal approval of anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments passed by Florida voters in November.

Scott has previously said the state needed more information, apparently meaning Census information, before seeking that approval.

But a spokesman for his office said Friday there's "no change on the question of pre-clearance," meaning federal approval, even though the final data is now expected to arrive in Florida on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the state of California has already received approval for a similar anti-gerrymandering amendment, also passed in November, without submitting any Census data in its application.

Florida amendment backers accuse Scott of stalling implementation for political reasons by not seeking that approval. District lines drawn to favor Republicans are considered a major reason for the large GOP majorities in the state Legislature and congressional delegation.

But Scott's spokesman denied that lack of action on seeking pre-clearance means Scott opposes seeking approval. He said Scott withdrew the state's application for approval, filed in December by former Gov. Charlie Crist, only so he could review it.

Dan Gelber, attorney for the Fair Districts Florida pro-amendment campaign group, which is now suing to force the state to re-apply for the federal approval, is among the amendment backers who don't buy that explanation.

Gelber, a former Democratic state lawmaker and attorney general candidate, noted that Scott, like other elected officials, took an oath to uphold the Florida Constitution, and the amendments are now part of the Constitution – Sections 20 and 21 of Article 3.

"His oath demands that he do it," Gelber said. "The governor is obliged to carry out his responsibility … consistent with his oath of office."

The amendments, aimed at ending partisan favoritism in drawing state legislative and congressional districts, got 63 percent voter approval in the November election.

But before they can take effect, the U.S. Department of Justice must state that they don't violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which forbids discrimination against minorities in voting systems.

In comments to reporters in January, shortly after news broke that he withdrew the state's pre-clearance application, Scott said the application "was premature. We didn't have enough information … We're going to get all the information we need, the Census data and things like that and then we'll do the right thing."

Scott didn't say what information was needed or why and neither he nor his spokesmen have explained might be wrong with the application or missing it.

On Friday, the Census bureau announced the final package of redistricting data will be sent to the state early next week.

Asked whether that means Scott will move on seeking pre-clearance soon, Brian Hughes, spokesman for his office, said in an e-mail, "There is no change at this time on the question of pre-clearance."

"The administration has been told that the legislature is months away from their work on redistricting. Therefore, taking the time to review the previous Governor's application does not impede the redistricting process at all."

He said Scott's "thoughtful review should not be considered a position against pre-clearance."

Scott's office said he withdrew the application at the same time that he suspended all pending state regulations and contracts adopted before he took office.

The chairmen of the Senate and House redistricting committees, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, both said their committees won't begin the substantive work of drawing districting lines until several months from now. They intend to hold public hearings on the issue this summer.

But both also said they consider the anti-gerrymandering amendments to be in effect as law, unless a court or the federal government overrules them.

Crist's office sent in the application Dec. 10.

It consisted of a copy of the two amendments – one concerning state legislative districts and the other congressional districts; answers to a Justice Department questionnaire about them and how they came to be adopted, and certified results of all races on the November ballot.

The amendments leave the responsibility of drawing district lines in the hands of the state Legislature, but set new standards saying the districts cannot be drawn to benefit any political party or candidate.

Republicans in the state Legislature opposed them.

Last year, they passed their own constitutional amendment proposal, but it was struck from the ballot as misleading. Now, state House Speaker Dean Cannon is trying to stop enactment of the voter-approved amendments in court, making the House party to a lawsuit against them.

The California secretary of state applied Dec. 2 for pre-clearance of Proposition 20, which added the task of congressional districting to the state's new redistricting commission. The commission had been set up by a previous amendment, passed in 2008, to draw state legislative lines.

California's application, which was similar to Florida's, got approval Feb. 3.

Erika Wood, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, which studies election law nationwide, said she knows of no reason why Florida would need to wait for Census data to submit its amendments for pre-clearance.

"In fact," she said in an e-mail, "the Code of Federal Regulations clearly states that 'changes affecting voting should be submitted as soon as possible after they become final.' "

Under those regulations, she said, Census data is needed only for submitting redistricting plans themselves for pre-clearance, not for pre-clearance of the laws that govern the redistricting process.

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