Florida Lawmakers Fail to Make Progress on Redistricting Special legislative session aimed at redrawing state's congressional map collap

ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES | The Wall Street Journal | 08/21/2015

A special legislative session in Florida aimed at redrawing the state’s congressional map collapsed Friday amid acrimony between the House and Senate, creating uncertainty for candidates ahead of the 2016 elections.

Lawmakers called the two-week session after the state Supreme Court ruled in July that the existing map of 27 congressional districts was unconstitutional. Justices said the Legislature violated constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 that prohibited lawmakers from drawing maps that intentionally favored incumbents or a political party, in this case the GOP.

Several states are contending with redistricting debates. In June, a federal court ordered Virginia lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional map after concluding that the Legislature illegally packed African-American voters into a district in the southeastern part of the state. The North Carolina Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments later this month on the state’s election map after the U.S. Supreme Court in April revived a challenge by civil-rights groups.

In Florida, the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to redraw eight districts, though the reconfiguration will affect additional districts abutting them.

The one poised to change most is held by Democratic Rep. Corinne Brown, whose district winds from Jacksonville in northern Florida down to Orlando in the central part of the state.

Critics say lawmakers packed it with black voters, who lean Democratic, thereby making surrounding districts safer for Republicans. The state Supreme Court said the district had to be redrawn in an east-to-west configuration, prompting Ms. Brown to sue to protect its contours.

While members of the House and Senate, both led by Republicans, agreed on that change in the special session, they clashed over the boundaries of other districts, including some in the Orlando and Tampa areas. Their standoff escalated on Friday, and both chambers adjourned.

“It’s chaos-ville in Tallahassee,” said David King, lead attorney for a coalition of voter groups that challenged the state’s maps in court.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Republican chairman of the reapportionment committee, defended the Legislature. “Most of the map was not in controversy between the chambers,” he said. “I didn’t personally think it had to be so difficult” to resolve the remaining disputes.

Though another special session is possible, the legislative collapse increases the likelihood that the courts will take on the task of redrawing the congressional map, said Michael McDonald, a professor and redistricting expert at the University of Florida. The Supreme Court could enlist a special master to craft a map, he said.

The delays are creating ambiguity for the state’s sitting members of Congress, as well as those contemplating a run. Until the map is settled, they won’t know the partisan composition of districts and what constituents they need to appeal to.

The disorder in the legislature “provides a lot of ammunition to redistricting reformers who make the argument that politicians can’t be trusted to draw districts,” Mr. McDonald said. States such as California and Arizona have assigned such duties to independent commissions.

Some Democrats in Florida are pushing for the creation of a similar entity in the state. “It’s got to be better than what we have,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, the House minority leader. “This process is not working.”

For now, Republican lawmakers appear firmly opposed to such changes to redistricting procedures. “We feel very strongly it’s a legislative process,” said Republican Senate Pres. Andy Gardiner.

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