Redistricting process begins as lawsuits loom

Tallahassee, FL – Fair District Amendments 5 and 6 are two voter-approved amendments that aim to redraw the congressional and legislative districts in a way that is "fair," but the amendments are a cause of controversy from both sides. As Sascha Cordner reports, Proponents say the Amendments aim to stop politicians from drawing their own district lines for their own interests, while opponents question the constitutionality of the amendments.

The Redistricting Process has been a hot topic in the state, especially considering several of the lawsuits associated with the redistricting amendments, also known as Fair District Amendments 5 and 6. Republican Representative Will Weatherford, the state's redistricting committee chairman, says the idea behind redistricting is everyone's vote should have the same amount of influence in the political process.

"So, if you had one representative who's got 400-thousand in their State House seat, and another Representative that has 100-thousand in their state House Seat, then the person who has 400-thousand citizens does not have as much strength in their vote because the district is larger. SO, what we do every 10 years, we try to even that out, and we redraw the Congressional seats, we redraw the State House Seats, and the State Senate Seats."

But, that process came to a halt this year, after Governor Rick Scott pulled a request for federal approval for Amendments 5 and 6. Florida is one of 16 states that must receive some approval from the U.S. Justice Department due to the Voting Rights Act.

Former Florida Senator Dan Gelber is the current attorney for Fair Districts Now, who are strong supporters of the amendments known as the Fair District Amendments. He says after they sued the Governor, the amendments' path to pre-clearance was back on track.

"The justice department approved the two amendments that have been put into Florida's constitution as compliant with the Voting Rights Act, which is what the justice department's supposed to do when it does its review. So, we now know the amendments are not violative of the Voting Rights Act, which means that they must be enforced in Florida."

But, that's not the only lawsuit Fair Districts Now is embroiled in. They are also battling another lawsuit as defendants against U.S. Representatives Corrine Brown and Mario Diaz-Balart. Gelber says Fair Districts as well as the Florida conference branches of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters are fighting for what the voters approved in November.

"You will have a lot more competitive Congressional seats and legislative, and House state seats. So, you will have elections where the voters will pick the elected officials, rather than the elected officials picking the voters."

But, Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart says Amendment 6 is clearly unconstitutional because it strips power from state legislators.

"The U-S Constitution deals with the powers of the state and in this case the powers of the state legislatures, and these individuals and these huge interests that spent all these millions of dollars to put this on the ballot and then on a campaign to get it passed, we believe are doing so in violation of the U-S Constitution, obviously affects the role of the state legislatures and I think it's pretty clear why the state legislature is and should be involved in this lawsuit as well."

Diaz-Balart is talking about how the Florida House joined in the lawsuit with the two U.S. Representatives, but what some were confused about was why the House and the Senate finally submitted the "Fair District Amendments" for pre-clearance, if the House Speaker Dean Cannon is still continuing with this lawsuit. Katie Betta, Spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, seeks to clear that up:

"We are asking for a seat at the table as this constitutional question that involves the responsibility of the legislature to redraw the Congressional boundaries is being discussed. And, we're asking for an answer to that constitutional question. Separately, we have an obligation to redraw House, Senate, and Congressional maps under the provisions of Amendment 5 and 6, which is why submitted the pre-clearance application."

State House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders says the legislature's Republican leadership dragged their feet before they submitted the redistricting amendments for one simple reason.

"Because they realized if they follow the mandates of Amendments 5 and6, and draw fair districts, that the super-majority that the republicans have in the Legislature will probably go away. In a state that has more registered Democrats than Republicans to have over two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate is a recognition fair districts were not drawn in the past and now they are going to be forced to by the court."

Representative Weatherford says now that the amendments have been pre-cleared, it's time for the next step.

"Now, we're starting the process here very shortly where we're going to go around the state and we'll have somewhere between 28 and 35 meetings around the state of Florida, and we'll be listening to citizens all over the state and spending probably hundreds of hours and giving public testimony on what the future of the state of Florida should look like."

Democratic Senator Gary Siplin of Orlando is in his third year of being on the redistricting committee. He is taking a wait and see approach as to whether or not he too will join in a lawsuit, because he wants to see what the public has to say, especially minorities.

"I would hope that they would say that they want to maintain the seats that they already have and not draw anything that would violate their current rights and their current access to elect people that have their same interests and desires, and I'm quite sure we will. And, once we hear those things, I will make sure that my colleagues are [on board] that we need make sure that we don't violate the Federal Voting Rights Act by eliminating those six black senate seats or those 19, 18 black representative seats."

Those are some of the same arguments U.S. Representatives Brown and Diaz-Balart have as well, and just recently, they filed their latest written argument. Now, the judge will hear oral arguments from either side at the end of July. The public hearings are scheduled to start on June 20th in Tallahassee and continue throughout the state, probably into the fall.