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Florida’s legislative leaders won’t appeal decision to strike down U.S. House map

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford ask judge to delay redrawing map until after November’s election

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugTALLAHASSEE, Florida (CFP) — Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature won’t appeal a judge’s ruling that the U.S. House map drawn in 2011 was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

But Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford are urging Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis not to order the map redrawn until the end of the current election cycle, noting that ballots have already gone out to military and overseas voters for the August 26 primary.

“Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters,” Gaetz and Weatherford said in a July 15 joint statement.

“It has been the practice in other states and in Florida to remedy maps at a future election so as not to disrupt and disenfranchise voters.”

Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis

Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis

In his July 10 order striking down the map, Lewis did not indicate when or how it might be redrawn. But attorneys for the plaintiffs who brought the suit, including the League of Women Voters, have said they wank the judge to change the map immediately.

The suit arose over two constitutional amendments Florida voters approved in 2010 designed to limit political gerrymandering. Under the new rules, districts cannot be drawn to benefit any political party and must be geographically compact.

However, the amendments left redistricting in the hands of legislators, rather than turning it over to an independent outside panel.

Lewis found two congressional maps — the 5th District and the 10th District — were drawn to benefit Republicans. While he rejected specific challenges to several other districts, bringing those two districts into compliance would likely trigger revisions across the state’s 27 districts.

Although Democrats are highly competitive in statewide races, Republicans hold a 17-10 majority in Florida’s congressional delegation under the map drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature.

Lewis was also highly critical of the behind-the-scenes role Republican political consultants played in drawing the map, which was supposed to be apolitical.

“They made a mockery of the legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process, utilizing the access it gave them to the decision makers, but going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it,” Lewis said.

The 5th District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep Corrine Brown, is a majority black district that meanders from Jacksonville over to Gainesville and then down to Orlando. At one point, it is the width of a highway.

The 10th District, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, is anchored in central Florida west of Orlando. But it has an appendage that wraps around Orlando to take in GOP voters to the east in Seminole County.

Legislative leaders have said they drew the districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act: Brown’s to create a majority black district and Webster’s to create a neighboring district in which Latino voters would have influence.

But Lewis ruled that a majority black district could have been drawn that was more compact and that putting those Republican voters in Webster’s district was unlikely to increase Latino influence.

Brown has joined with Republican leaders in defending the map,

“Minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district ‘compactness,’ while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments minority communities across the state,” she said in a statement.

To comply with the Voting Rights Act, Republican legislators across the South have created legislative and congressional districts with black majorities, which, in order to capture as many black voters as possible, are often oddly shaped.

Because the black vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, adjacent districts have become more Republican. At the congressional level, this has meant that white Democrats have virtually disappeared, and the GOP dominates House delegations.

Florida’s 2010 constitutional amendments added a new wrinkle by forbidding both use of party considerations in redistricting and requiring geographic compactness, neither of which are required in other Southern states.

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