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Florida Legislature approves changes to U.S. House map

New plan makes slight alterations to 10 districts and is unlikely to disturb delegation’s GOP tilt

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugTALLAHASSEE, Florida (CFP) — On a largely party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Florida House and Senate have approved a bill redrawing the state’s U.S. House map, which a state judge ruled last month was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

The new map makes only minor alterations to 10 of the state’s 27 districts that are unlikely to change the House delegation’s partisan balance. The groups that sued to strike down the map, including the League of Women Voters, are demanding more substantial changes that could trigger new districts statewide and are expected to ask the judge to reject the redrawn map.

The Senate approved the new map by a vote of 25-12 on August 11. The House gave its approval a short time later by a vote of 71-38. Lawmakers rejected a democratic alternative that would have made two GOP-held districts near Orlando more competitive.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that two districts in northwestern and central Florida — the majority black 5th District and the Republican-leaning 10th District — violated 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 ruled that the map draw by legislators packed black voters into the oddly shaped 5th District to make surrounding districts more Republican and also added an appendage to the 10th District east of Orlando to add more Republican voters.

Lewis ordered legislators to draw a new map by August 15, although he has not said whether he will order the map to be used in this year’s congressional elections. That could throw the Sunshine State’s election process into chaos as absentee ballots have already been sent out for the August 26 primary.

While Republican leaders in the legislature decided to comply with Lewis’s order to redraw the map rather than appeal, they have said they will only support using the new map beginning in 2016 and want to continue this year’s elections under the old map.

Lewis has set a hearing for August 20 to hear arguments on implementing the new map.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

Under the original map, the 5th District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, was a majority black district that meandered from Jacksonville over to Gainesville and then down to Orlando, taking in heavily black precincts to create a black majority At one point, it is the width of a highway.

In the new map, the 5th District still runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, but some black voters in the Orlando area are shifted to adjacent districts and some more rural areas are added south of Jacksonville to make the district geographically wider. The new district is 48 percent black.

Brown joined with Republicans in supporting the original map, which she said met the Voting Rights Act’s requirement to create majority minority districts wherever possible.

The new map also makes changes to the 10th District, held by U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, and the adjacent 7th District, held by U.S. Rep. John Mica, that will make them less Republican. Because House districts must have equal population, the changes to those three districts required slight changes in seven surrounding districts in central Florida.

The League of Women Voters and the other plaintiffs are criticizing the new map, saying it doesn’t fix the geographic problems with the 5th District. They have proposed a different map that would have the 5th District running due west from Jacksonville past Tallahassee — a change that would require a wholesale revision of the map statewide.

The Democratic alternative rejected by the legislature doesn’t go as far as the plaintiff’s map, but it would have made the 7th and 10th districts more evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Although Florida is evenly divided politically, Republicans enjoy a 17-10 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, largely due to their control of the redistricting process.

In his ruling striking down the map, Lewis was highly critical of the behind-the-scenes role Republican political consultants played in the redistricting process, 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.

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