Voting advocates won’t oppose Florida state legislative redistricting maps

TALLAHASSEE — After years of litigation and bitter opposition from the Republican-led Legislature, the coalition of voter advocacy groups that brought the state its redistricting standards has called for a truce.

FairDistricts Now, and its consortium of vote advocates, will not oppose the House and Senate redistricting maps that were passed by the Florida Legislature two weeks ago, setting the stage for the plans serve as political boundaries for the 120-member House and 40-member Senate for the next decade.

“Something happened yesterday that had never happened before,” said Ellen Freidin, chief executive of FairDistricts Now, a nonpartisan organization that worked to pass the 2010 constitutional amendment to impose new redistricting standards in Florida. “The redistricting maps proposed by the Legislature for the State House and the Senate have been sent to the Florida Supreme Court for their automatic face review and no one has challenged them.”

Related: Florida House offers legislative redistricting maps

The House and Senate cards give Democrats the chance to win seats in Republican-controlled chambers. The Senate map gives Republicans a likely 23-17 advantage over Democrats in the 40-member chamber, one more for Democrats than they currently have. The House map gives Republicans a 71-49 edge in the 120-member House, seven more than Democrats now have.

Under Florida law, the Florida Supreme Court must conduct a review of maps to ensure they comply with FairDistricts amendments passed by voters in 2010. The amendments require lawmakers to draw maps that do not do not favor incumbents or political parties and protect the voting strength of minorities. .

The deadline for any organization opposed to the plan to file a challenge was midnight Monday. No lawsuit has been filed and on Tuesday the court waived oral argument.

The court has until March 9 to approve or reject the maps and, unless the court finds a reason to oppose them, they are expected to be the districts the candidates will use in qualifying in June for the presidential elections. House and Senate.

Court approval, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be a legal challenge on constitutional grounds after the maps go into effect, said Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat who has was the Democrats’ most senior member on the House redistricting committee and voted. against the cards.

“If the House card is thrown out because it is constitutionally deficient under FairDistricts, or because it violates the Voting Rights Act, it will be after a full trial with all the facts in the sun,” a he said in a statement Tuesday evening. “Filing an application with the Supreme Court would have only delayed the proceedings and slowed down access to a trial.”

Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, had no comment on the development, but House Speaker Chris Sprows, R-Palm Harbor, gave a victory lap.

“Not a single group, not a single individual, has challenged a single House district in the Supreme Court of Florida,” he said after the House wrapped up debate on its budget and a draft bill. law to limit abortions. “No solitary argument has been presented challenging our maps, and I would like to note that the court is the final arbiter of our maps’ compliance with Article III, Section 21, of the Florida Constitution.”

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Sprows chastised Democrats for what he called “troubling innuendos…that questioned the integrity” of lawmakers and staff and for calling the proposal “grossly unconstitutional.” He said he hoped “they will own up to the mistake they made”.

It’s a reversal of fortune from ten years ago. In 2012, a coalition of Democratic-leaning voting rights groups, led by the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued on behalf of several individual female voters who accused lawmakers of unfairly drawing maps that protected lawmakers. incumbent and Republicans.

Over the next three years, lawmakers fought over whether lawmakers could be sworn in to discuss the maps and whether emails from Republican political operatives working with House and Senate leaders could be part of the record.

The Florida Supreme Court made history in 2014 when it ruled lawmakers could be filed in the case and officers’ documents must be turned over.

In court filings, data sleuths working for plaintiff groups found millions of census blocks that proved the legislature’s organized conspiracy. Data and email records demonstrated that the Legislative Assembly selectively eliminated and added populations to congressional districts to improve the performance of incumbents, a violation of FairDistrict provisions.

In July 2015, the Florida Supreme Court pointed to “circumstantial evidence of collusion between the legislature and the consultants” and ruled 5 to 2 that the legislators were guilty of violating the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution. The landmark decision said the entire process was “tainted with improper political intent” and ordered the Legislature to redraw the map of Congress.

The verdict was so broad, however, that rather than continuing the legal fight over the state Senate map, lawmakers admitted they also violated the Constitution when they crafted the Senate redistricting plan in 2012. Lawmakers scheduled a special session and revised both maps.

The legal battle cost Florida taxpayers more than $11 million and left lawmakers with a blemished record as they resumed the process last year.

In an effort to “take action against the shadow process” of 10 years ago, the House and Senate redistricting chairs announced new rules in September designed to keep political operatives out. The measures, however, have also worked to keep the public at bay.

The rules were criticized by Freidin and Democratic lawmakers, but Republican leaders refused to change them. Freidin concluded on Tuesday that the redistricting standards were working as intended.

“Throughout this year’s redistricting process, lawmakers have consistently expressed a desire to follow the FairDistricts Amendments and avoid the debacle of the last cycle when they were humiliated in court for deliberately defying constitutional mandates” , Freidin said in a statement. “They rightly believed that if they followed the provisions of FairDistricts and the case law interpreting them, they would avoid challenges.”

Geller, however, said he believed the reason no brief was filed in court was that the court’s initial review was limited and subject to a tight deadline.

“If anyone wants to know where we are on the maps, they only have to look at the full record we have put together in committees and in the House to see our concerns about packing and cracking voters minorities, the lack of protection for linguistic minority voters and in fact the whole process of redistricting in the House,” he said.

Freidin also warned lawmakers that the coast is still unclear when it comes to the Congressional map. The Senate has approved its map, but the House redistricting subcommittee is due to review its plan from Congress on Friday.

Related: DeSantis swears to veto Congressional map of Florida lawmakers

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who holds a veto over the Congressional map, urged lawmakers to produce a more partisan map than the one put forward by the Senate. His attorney, Ryan Newman, submitted a second congressional map on Monday that, like the first submitted in January, dismantles majority-black districts to give Republicans an 18-10 partisan advantage.

Freidin warned that if lawmakers adopted the governor’s approach, it could lead to legal problems.

“While the Senate also passed a Congressional map that appears reasonably legal, the map advancing to the House eliminates a minority access district that the Senate rightly identifies as protected,” Freidin said. Tuesday.

“With Governor DeSantis taking the unprecedented action of seeking permission from the Florida Supreme Court to clear minority seats and threatening vetoes to influence Senate and House negotiations, voters in Florida must remain vigilant and voice their demand for fair representation.”

Times/Herald writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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