TALLAHASSEE - Of eight congressional districts the Florida Supreme Court required the Legislature to fix, none is more controversial than U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s District 5.
None of the others will change more than this district, which winds south to Orlando but the court says should stretch west to Tallahassee. District 5 and its twists and turns have also been the focus of numerous legal challenges dating back to the 1990s, and those challenges are likely to continue long after new maps are approved this week.
Ending the kind of gerrymandering that defines District 5 was the focus of the Fair Districts Amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2010. But legal experts and lawmakers say there is a catch: Compact districts make it harder to create the type of coalition minorities need to elect one of their own to Congress, an effort protected under the federal Voting Rights Act.
“It’s literally true that there’s a tradeoff,” said Steven Hill, a political author based in California who focuses on ways to improve America’s elections system. “You can have more competition or you can have Voting Rights Act consideration. It’s very hard to have both.”
The Supreme Court still intends for District 5 to be a minority-access seat likely to elect an African-American Democrat like Brown, who lives in Jacksonville and has been a member of Congress since 1992. The court said an east-west configuration would achieve that goal in a way that also makes the district more compact and geographically harmonious.
“Since the Legislature cannot prove that the north-south configuration is necessary to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice, we hold that District 5 must be redrawn in an east-west manner,” the majority opinion dated July 9 said. Later in the same opinion, justices continued: “Despite the Legislature’s repeated contentions that a north-south orientation of the district is the only option and is essential to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice, there is simply insufficient evidence to support that assertion.”
Brown vehemently disagrees. Confronted by the media after Thursday’s hearing with evidence that the proposed district contains a voting population that makes it likely to continue electing an African-American Democrat — and that her former constituents in Orlando would be drawn into a district that also could send an additional minority to Washington — Brown refused to concede and predicted the worst.
“District 5 [the proposed district]: They knew when they drew it that it would not elect an African-American nor would it elect a Democrat,” she said. “I have no idea why they drew that district.”
If Brown were to win re-election in 2016 under the maps as proposed, she would gain constituents in North Florida, including Tallahassee and rural counties with sizable African-American populations. But she would no longer represent black neighborhoods near Orlando like Eatonville, known as one of the state’s first all-black towns.
Brown is especially angry that the town of Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012, was already taken out of her district in a 2014 special session on redistricting. The Supreme Court ruled this year that the 2014 map didn’t go far enough.
“What’s going to happen to those people in that community?” Brown said Thursday during her testimony to the Senate’s redistricting committee. “Communities of interest. That is exactly what the 1965 Voting Rights Act was all about.”
Brown filed a legal challenge in federal court last week with the specific goal of stopping the Legislature from drawing her district east-west. She believes that configuration violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits states from drawing lines in a way that keeps minorities from exercising their collective voting power.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that keeping “communities of interest” together to strengthen their voting power should also consider geographical compactness. The Florida Supreme Court took issue with the way Brown’s district snaked to Orlando, at one point only the width of a highway.
The court said the Fair Districts Amendment that Florida voters overwhelmingly approved in 2010 makes District 5 unconstitutional. The amendment, which Brown opposed from the start, outlaws gerrymandering that benefits a certain political party or candidate.
The Legislature is required to redraw the maps once a decade after census results are tabulated, and the 2012 process was the first under the new Fair Districts constraints.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups challenged the 2012 maps almost immediately, saying lawmakers did not adhere to the new rules and succumbed to secret political influences. A trial court sided with the plaintiffs, and the 2014 special session resulted in small changes to District 5, primarily the Sanford shift.
The Florida Supreme Court said in July that District 5 needs more drastic changes. It noted that in 2012 the Legislature boosted the black voting age population in the district above 50 percent at the last minute, which had the effect of making adjoining districts more likely to elect Republicans.
The court has made it clear that if it doesn’t like the map that the Legislature comes up with this time, its third attempt, justices will likely take the job out of lawmakers’ hands.
So far, the Legislature is implementing the requirement that District 5 be drawn east-west. As a result, Brown could face a Democratic primary opponent like former state Sen. Al Lawson, who is a well-known African-American politician in Tallahassee. Brown’s legal challenge hinges on the argument that a black candidate doesn’t have a chance in the new District 5.
If a white Democrat or even a Republican does manage to win the seat, that wouldn’t automatically mean the Voting Rights Act was violated, said Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
“Do these voters have the opportunity to elect? From what I’ve seen from the map, yes [they do],” Smith said. “Is it going to be Corrine Brown? Maybe or maybe not.”
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, serves on the Senate’s redistricting committee and said she is worried the state constitution will be allowed to overshadow the federal protections for black voters, which she believes is paramount.
“The Fair Districts Amendment is supposed to be tier two and be secondary to tier one,” she said. “I think that’s plain in writing, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t think it’s totally playing out that way.”
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, isn’t satisfied with the current draft of the map and voted with three others against it during Thursday’s committee meeting.
But he is optimistic that the final product will address problems identified by the Florida Supreme Court without conflicting with Voting Rights Act provisions.
“I think there is enough middle ground that we can do both,” he said. “So that we don’t diminish minority representation or African-American participation in that district and meet the standards that were set forth in Fair Districts.”