Critics say lawmakers want to continue gerrymandered districts

William March | Tampa Tribune | 03/30/2011

Florida legislative leaders Mike Haridopolos and Dean Cannon have resubmitted the state's new anti-gerrymandering amendments for federal approval, but in a way that critics say seeks to allow the Legislature to continue drawing districts to benefit Republicans.

The action means the amendments continue to be a political football despite having been approved by 63 percent voter majorities in the November election.

Republicans, including Cannon, the state House speaker, and Haridopolos, state Senate president, oppose the amendments because of the likelihood they'll reduce the Republican majorities in the state House, Senate and congressional delegation.

The amendments would forbid drawing legislative districts designed to benefit either political party or incumbent officeholders.

Before taking effect, the amendments must get federal approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, called "preclearance," to assure they don't undermine minority voting rights under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Gov. Charlie Crist submitted a routine application for that preclearance before leaving office, but Gov. Rick Scott withdrew it just after taking office. That drew accusations that he was trying to frustrate the will of the voters.

On Tuesday, Cannon and Haridopolos submitted a new application, but said in it that the amendments could harm minority voting rights in Florida, depending on how they're interpreted.

If so, Cannon and Haridopolos said, the Department of Justice shouldn't approve them.

Under another interpretation, the two said, the amendments would not harm minority voting rights and could be approved. That interpretation, they said, would allow the Legislature to continue to pack black and Hispanic voters into a few districts, as they have done in the past.

That process protects Republicans in the surrounding districts by leaving those districts mainly white, giving Republicans a net gain in seats. That has helped build the GOP majorities of more than 2-1 in the Legislature and congressional delegation.

In the 1992 and 2002 reapportionments, the process resulted in districts such as Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's 11th District. The heavily black and Hispanic, Democratic-voting district makes Castor politically invincible, but it also leaves majorities of Republican voters in several surrounding districts, including those of Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Dennis Ross and Bill Young.

In 2002, lawyers for the Legislature acknowledged part of the intent of the district plans was to benefit the GOP.

Critics on Tuesday charged that the application by Haridopolos and Cannon was a ploy aimed at getting ammunition from the Justice Department to undercut the amendments in a court battle.

Cannon responded saying he and Haridopolos want the amendments to be precleared, but added, "Our goal is to preserve the gains made for minority representation over the last two decades, two decades that have seen the number of minorities in the Florida Legislature and in Florida's Congressional delegation more than double. "

Gerald Hebert, an election law expert who has followed Florida's reapportionment battles since 2002, said the legislators were wrong on their proposed interpretations.

"What they're trying to do is get the Justice Department to approve their misinterpretations," he said. "The Justice Department won't do that — they'll simply say they either approve or disapprove the amendments."

Hebert said he intends to file comments with the Justice Department disagreeing with the Legislature's submission. So does the FairDistricts committee that sponsored the petition drive and campaign for the amendments.

"The submission contains a number of statements that are clearly intended to undermine the intent of the FairDistricts Amendments," said Dan Gelber, former state senator and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for attorney general, who is the committee's lawyer.

Cannon has made the state House a party to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the amendments, and Haridopolos has opposed them in written comments.

When he withdrew the application for preclearance for the amendments, Scott said the application was "premature" and incomplete because the state hadn't yet received Census data.

But in a news release Tuesday, Cannon and Haridopolos said Scott had asked the Legislature and Attorney General Pam Bondi to give him "assistance in determining who was the proper authority to actually file the preclearance application and what information should be included in that application."

"It was determined that either the Attorney General, as the 'chief legal officer' of the State, or the Florida Legislature, as the implementing authority for redistricting, should submit the application," the release said.

It said the previous application was deficient because it "did not substantively address the fundamental question of whether or not Amendments 5 and 6 were retrogressive to minority voters," meaning whether they would undercut minority voting power.

The new application included a five-page discussion of the effect on minority voting power.

In it, lawyers for Cannon and Haridopolos argued that the amendments could harm minority voters by requiring districts to be compact and follow city or county lines where possible.

The lawyers said breaking those rules has led to more black and Hispanic members of Congress and the state Legislature by allowing oddly shaped districts that take in more minority voters.

The lawyers said the amendments should be interpreted to allow that practice to continue to protect the minority incumbents, even if the Voting Rights Act doesn't explicitly require it. If so, they said, the amendments could be approved.

Hebert said the question of who should submit the application was a non-issue.

"Florida's secretary of state, on behalf of the governor, has made hundreds of submissions for preclearance over the years, and this has never been an issue," he said. The state gets preclearance for elections changes ranging from redistricting maps to deadlines for mailing absentee and overseas ballots, he said..

The state of California, Hebert noted, recently received preclearance for anti-gerrymandering amendments passed last November in response to an application submitted by its secretary of state without a lengthy discussion of the effect on minority voters.

Hebert said the Florida amendments explicitly say the Voting Rights Act's requirements are to be respected.

He said the legislative leaders are "trying to use the Justice Department's decision as a stamp of approval for their interpretation, which would allow them to continue the same gerrymandering practices they've used in the past."

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