Tallahassee, FL – As the Senate Reapportionment Committee met this week to discuss the legalities involved in drawing legislative and congressional districts, critics were lashing out at a move by Governor Rick Scott that could delay implementation of amendments five and six, known as fair districts. Gina Jordan reports.
As chair of the Reapportionment Committee, Republican Senator Don Gaetz spent time in Washington recently meeting with legal scholars and attending briefings for state leaders around the country on redistricting law.
"I can tell you that I began to be more and more troubled as each time Florida was mentioned, the mention of Florida was greeted either with laughter or with groans."
It's time to redraw legislative and congressional lines, which happens once a decade after the census is conducted. This time, constitutional amendments 5 and 6 must be part of the process. Florida voters approved the Fair Districts amendments, requiring that new boundaries not favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent. They must be compact, similar in population, and afford equal opportunities to minorities. Senator Gary Siplin, a Democrat, was also on the Washington trip, which he called grueling.
"I guess I'm confined to say that I'm not decided about how we're gonna actually draw these districts in light of the two new amendments. I think our chairman would agree it's gonna take some time for us to decide how we're gonna do that. It was nothing definitive about what to do with amendments five and six, so we're gonna have to rely upon both House counsel and our counsel to tell us what we need to do."
A Justice Department review is required to ensure that election law changes in Florida are not discriminatory. So, the state sent a request in December for federal approval. But shortly after taking office in early January, Governor Scott sent a letter withdrawing the request because, according to a spokesman, all new state rules must be reviewed by the new administration. That infuriated some Democrats, who say the move is an effort to obstruct implementation of the amendments. But it hasn't stopped the work that Senator Gaetz refers to as "the art of redistricting."
"Our task going forward now is not to preach, not to tell people what we think we know, but rather to listen and to learn, to listen to legal authorities and learn from them; to listen to what's gone on in the past in terms of court precedence and learn from it; but most importantly to listen to the people of Florida."
They will do that by hiring private attorneys to make sure they are compliant with all federal and state laws, and the House and Senate will jointly hold public hearings across the state.
"The House is working on a list of places where they believe we ought to have public hearings, and I would like to implore you to please looks at areas not only in your districts but elsewhere where you believe there is going to be an interest by the public in discussing where lines are drawn and why they're drawn and how they're drawn."
Gaetz expects at least 20 such hearings between July and October, once they have block by block census information on Florida's 18.8 million residents. That's the number they will us to calculate the ideal size of districts. They will also use interactive software demonstrated by John Guthrie, Staff Director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, who inadvertently showed how complicated it can be.
"And any of these polygons that I happen to touch with the shape that I draw will - woops, uh, now we'll learn about the undo button. If you make a mistake "
Gaetz encouraged committee members to learn how to use the program, because their
constituents will soon have access to it.
"It's kind of like knowing the rules of the Senate. If you don't know how to use the software, you know, we're not gonna just come in here with a magic marker and a map of Florida. You know, we're gonna use this precision information and precision technology because that's what we're gonna give the people of Florida so that they can use it."
Republicans were largely against amendments five and six, believing the guidelines will be impossible to meet and will result in lawsuits. They have a Democrat on their side in Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who is suing the state of Florida in U-S District Court along with Republican Congressman Mario Diaz Balart. They say amendment 6 is unconstitutional and harmful to minorities. The Florida House is joining the suit; the ACLU is looking to defend the amendment; and Attorney General Pam Bondi is asking that the suit be thrown out because the court has no jurisdiction.