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Florida lawmakers coming back to approve Governor Ron DeSantis’s new U.S. House map

Lawmakers convene special session on governor’s plan to add 4 Republican-leaning seats, nuke North Florida majority-minority district

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

FloridaTALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Florida lawmakers will be back in Tallahassee this week to approve a new U.S. House map, with the Republicans in charge ready (or maybe just resigned?) to letting Governor Ron DeSantis take the lead – a decision that’s almost certain to result in both state and federal court fights over how far Republicans can go in gerrymandering the map to their advantage.

florida new map

New U.S. House map proposed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis

DeSantis has proposed a new map that will add four GOP-leaning seats across the state, giving the party a shot at winning 20 of 28 seats – in a state where Republicans usually only win by single-digit margins in statewide races.

Potentially more problematically from a legal perspective, DeSantis wants to nuke the current 5th District in North Florida, a Democratic-leaning, majority-minority district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

Instead, metro Jacksonville will be carved into two Republican-leaning districts, and Tallahassee and rural areas in the district will be subsumed into two existing districts, which have heavy GOP majorities.

DeSantis has railed against the 5th District, which was created by the Florida Supreme Court after a lawsuit over the 2012 U.S. House map. Its existence was the primary reason he vetoed the map approved earlier this year by Republican legislators, who were wary of trying to dismantle a district that is 47% black, represented by black Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.

But DeSantis has insisted he wants a “race neutral” map, in which districts aren’t drawn with racial considerations in mind, and Republican legislative leaders now appear resigned to letting him get his way.

While DeSantis’s new map leaves the current line-up of seats in South Florida intact, he’s rejiggered the lines in Tampa Bay to make the 13th District in Pinellas County (currently held by Democrat Charlie Crist) more Republican and also made changes in metro Orlando to give the currently competitive 7th District (held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy) a decidedly Republican tilt.

Currently, there are 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats in Florida’s House delegation. Under the new map, there will be 18 Republican-leaning seats, eight that lean Democratic and two in South Florida that will be competitive but are now both held by Republicans.

Should DeSantis’s map pass as is, the legal fight will commence in two directions.

First, in 2010, Florida voters passed two constitutional amendments, dubbed the Fair Districts amendments, designed to prevent legislators from drawing maps designed to protect incumbents or create partisan advantage. This makes Florida somewhat unique among states by limiting, at least in theory, how far legislators can go in partisan map making.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court cited those very amendments in overturning the U.S. House map drawn in 2012 and imposing a new one, which created the districts that Lawson and Murphy won.

However, thanks to appointments by DeSantis and his predecessor as governor, Rick Scott, the state’s high court is more conservative that it was in 2015, and there is speculation the justices will look more favorably on legislators’ handiwork this time around.

But what also remains as a potential impediment to DeSantis’s best-laid plans is the federal Voting Rights Act. Although Florida no longer has to get clearance from the Justice Department for its maps, they still must conform to the act’s purpose of maximizing minority voting representation.

North Florida has sent an African-American representative to Congress continuously since 1992; DeSantis’s proposed map would almost certainly end that representation for the foreseeable future, which will certainly raise voting rights concerns.

It would also have the effect of reducing the number of black Congress members from the Sunshine State from five to four. (Those numbers include Republican Byron Donalds, who represents a mostly white district in Southwest Florida; South Florida Democrats Federica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; and Democrat Val Demings from Orlando.)

That would leave Florida’s black representation in the congressional delegation at about 14%, the same as the state’s black voting age population – which could be an argument in the map’s favor despite the loss of the North Florida seat.

And the final arbiter of a federal challenge to DeSantis’s new map might very well be the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative justices seem ready and eager to wade into the issue of voting rights.

In a larger sense, the fight over the maps also shows how DeSantis, in just four short years, has come to amass enough power to bring legislative leaders to heel – in this case, even against their better judgment.

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Florida Republicans discuss how new non-voting prisoners might sink U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown

Court-ordered redistricting has moved a number of state prisons into Brown’s district, decreasing the minority voting population

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugJACKSONVILLE (CFP) — Florida Republicans are hoping that court-ordered congressional redistricting will pack enough non-voting prisoners in U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown’s district to imperil the 12-term Democratic lawmaker.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

Attendees at a meeting of North Florida Republicans held in August discussed the implications of a new configuration for Brown’s district that includes a number of prisons, which will drop the African-American voting population in the district and improve GOP prospects.

A recording of the meeting was originally obtained by Politico Florida.

Prefacing her remarks by making sure there were no reporters in the room, State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernadina Beach, called the redistricting “a perfect storm” for Brown.

Adressing a Republican official from a Baker County, which is being added to Brown’s district and has a large prison population, she said, “You can be the person who can help get rid of Corrine Brown.”

“We do not take into consideration where these people live. It would not be constitutional to take into consideration where they live.”

Adkins later issued an email apologizing if her remarks “offended anyone,” explaining that the conversation was her attempt to explain the ongoing controversy over reapportionment.

Adkins comments were not new. In fact, they echo complaints Brown herself has made about including 18 state prisons in the newly configured 5th District. She has filed suit in U.S. District Court to block the redistricting, which had been ordered by the Florida Supreme Court after it stuck down the current congressional map in July.

A circuit court judge in Tallahassee began a hearing September 24 to choose among seven competing maps. The state Supreme Court will make the final decision.

State lawmakers were unable to agree on a redrawn map during a special session in August. However, both the House and Senate versions of the map change Brown’s district from a north-south configuration to an east-west alignment stretching from central Jacksonville west through counties along the Georgia border to the Tallahassee area.

That change would add rural areas of North Florida, including four counties that are home to a number of state prisons. Adkins alluded to that fact in her remarks at the meeting, asking the other attendees, “What’s the primary industry in North Florida?” The answer was “prisons.”

Because prisoners count toward the population size of a district but cannot vote, including the prisons will reduce the overall size of the voting age population. And to the degree that prison populations are disproportionately made up of minorities, the minority population of the district will drop as a result.

Brown’s current district has a black voting age population of 50 percent. The new district’s black voting age population is 45 percent, including the new felons who cannot vote.

The state Supreme Court ruled in July that Brown’s north-south district—which snaked through northeast and central Florida from Jacksonville to Orlando to pick up black voters and was at one point the width of a highway—violated two anti-gerrymandering amendments Florida voters added to the state constitution in 2010. It also struck down seven other districts, leading to a wholesale redrawing of the congressional map.

The high court ruled that lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature impermissibly drew the lines to improve their party’s electoral prospects, something the anti-gerrymandering amendments forbid.

Listen to a recording of the Republican meeting:



Florida Supreme Court strikes down state’s congressional map

High court gives state legislature 100 days to draw new map to fix problems with eight districts

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

florida mugGAINESVILLE, Florida (CFP) — The Florida Supreme Court has struck down the state’s map of congressional districts, ruling that the Republican-controlled state legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered the map to help the GOP’s electoral prospects.

In a 5-to-2 ruling issued July 9, the high court agreed with a lower court ruling last year that the 2011 redistricting process had been “tainted” by partisan gerrymandering, which was outlawed by Florida voters in a constitutional amendment passed in 2010.

The trial court had ordered changes in two districts, but the Supreme Court went further, ruling that eight of the state’s 27 districts were improperly drawn and giving legislators 100 days to come up with a new map that complies with the anti-gerrymandering amendment. The new map will be in place for the 2016 elections.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

While the high court did not order the entire map to be redrawn, reworking the eight districts in question is likely to have an impact on many of the surrounding districts, particularly in northeast Florida, where justices ordered an oddly shaped, black plurality district represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to be completely reconfigured.

Responding to testimony in the trial court that showed Republican legislators and consultants had met behind closed doors to draw the congressional maps, the Supreme Court majority also encouraged the legislature “to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.”

There was no immediate word from legislative leaders as to when a special legislative session might be convened to redraw the congressional map.

The ruling was a victory for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which filed suit to overturn the maps. Pamela Goodman, the president of the league, called the decision a victory “against devious political scheming.”

“The Florida Supreme Court took the Florida Legislature to the woodshed,” she said in a statement. “Their egregious behavior using partisan political operatives in the redistricting process was appropriately reprimanded.”

The Republican-controlled legislature decided not to appeal the trial court’s ruling in 2014, which led to a special session of the legislature to make minor changes in the map. But the League of Women Voters appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that those changes didn’t go far enough.

The eight districts found to be unconstitutional are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. But the changes ordered by the court are giving Democrats hopes of making inroads in Florida’s congressional delegation. Despite the state’s even political split, Republicans hold a 17-to-10 advantage among House members.

The two biggest changes ordered by the high court are in the 5th District, represented by Brown, D-Jacksonville, and the 13th District, held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-St. Petersburg.

The Supreme Court ruled that Brown’s north-south district — which snakes through northeast and central Florida from Jacksonville to Orlando to pick up black voters and is at one point the width of a highway — should be redrawn in an east-west configuration from Jacksonville towards the Panhandle. The current black voting age population in the district is 48 percent.

While moving the district could create an opening for a minority candidate in the Orlando area, it might also present problems for U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, whose 2nd District includes areas along the Georgia border that would be shifted into the 5th District.

Brown, one of just three African-Americans in Florida’s congressional delegation, had joined with Republicans in the legislature in defending the map. She blasted the high court’s decision in a statement, saying it was “seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.”

While Brown did not indicate if she might file a federal lawsuit to stop the court-mandated redistricting, she did say that “as a people, African-Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly are not taking any steps backwards.”

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

U.S. Rep. David Jolly

In the 13th District, which takes in most of Pinellas County, the Supreme Court held that the legislature’s decision to shift African-American voters in St. Petersburg into the neighboring 14th District, across the bay in Tampa, to make the 13th more Republican-friendly violated a requirement that districts be geographically compact wherever possible.

Shifting those voters back into the 13th District could make life more difficult for Jolly, who won the seat in a special election last year. But Jolly’s office issued a statement after the ruling saying he was not concerned about the prospect that his district might be redrawn.

“The courts and the legislature will determine next steps, and Congressman Jolly will remain focused solely on doing his job and serving all of Pinellas County,” the statement said. “If he continues to do the job he was elected to do, the politics will take care of itself.”

Here are the other districts that are affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling:

21st District and 22nd District – These two districts, in Palm Beach and Broward counties in South Florida, run parallel to each other, one along the Atlantic Coast and the other inland. The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that these two districts would be more geographically compact if they were made wider and stacked on top of each other, although the high court stopped short of ordering the legislature to adopt that configuration. The 21st District is represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton; the 22nd District by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

25th District – The court’s objection to this district was that legislators split Hendry County, a rural county with a majority minority population, between the 25th District and the adjacent 20th District, instead of putting the county entirely in the 25th. The legislature argued that it split the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but the high court said legislators had not proven that putting the county in a single district would compromise the electoral prospects of minority voters. The district, which would become more Democratic if all of Hendry County is included, is represented by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

26h District and 27th District – The court objected to the legislature’s decision to split the city of Homestead, south of Miami, between these two districts, which had the effect of creating two Republican-leaning districts, rather than one safe district for each party. The high court ordered the legislature to put all of Homestead in one district. District 26 is represented by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami; District 27 by veteran U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. Whichever of them gets Homestead will have to deal with more Democratic voters, although Ros-Lehtinen said she had “no worries” about the prospect that her district lines might shift.

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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