Senate passes new voter maps sparking first judicial challenge

Feb 9, 2012

The Florida Senate has signed off on new voting district maps, and they are now headed to a judicial review. Democrats have long claimed the state’s new elections law and current process of redistricting are an attempt to block them from having any substantial influence in Florida politics. Republicans hold super-majorities in both chambers of the legislature, and have full control of the Cabinet. Now, as Lynn Hatter reports, the minority party is making a case that the majority party is engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering.

Democratic State Representative Darryl Rouson sums up his district this way:

“District 55 is Southern Pinellas County, North Manatee, North Sarasota and one little tiny prescient in Hillsboro County. My district is one of the most gerrymandered in the entire state. They had to go across the Skyway bridge, so I represent all those fish underneath. We just can’t get them registered to vote.”  

Under the jokes is a level of seriousness. About a quarter of state lawmakers are democrats, although the party holds the lead in statewide voter registration. A law passed last session limited early voting and third-party registration drives.  Critics call it a voter-suppression because Democrats tend to participate in greater numbers in both activities. And recently, the party is crying foul over the redrawing of state senate and house seats—which they say still places them at a competitive disadvantage.

Fellow Democrat Representative Barbara Watson says the issues are compounded because it’s an election year.

“It is crucial for our president to be re-elected by bringing the votes out.”  

The same idea can be applied on the Republican side as well.

The legislature decides Things like who can vote, how they vote, and where they vote.  Florida is in the process of redrawing its state and congressional voting maps—which means some current lawmakers who occupy seats now, will be gone at the end of the year. The process has many Democrats and some election watchdog groups crying foul, because they say the system is rigged. But people like Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho disagree:

 “A conspiracy is something that generally happens in secret. And this process of manipulating the districts to rig the outcome of the elections before people vote in them, is actually happening in front of us right now.   We can see the district maps the House and Senate have developed. And the numbers tell us explicitly what’s going on. How Republican districts have far fewer Republican in them than Democratic districts, which are packed much higher. And this is not a conspiracy, this is scientific data. This is math.”

But when you talk to the other side—the group drawing the maps, it’s a different story.  Senate President Mike Haridopolos says the process has been completely open and fair.

“As you know, in the first vote, we had a 34-6 vote in each of the plans. I’m very encouraged by the process. I think what we set out to do has been accomplished, showing a lot of respect for Amendments Five and Six, and we’ll let the courts see if they feel same way.”  

Other legislative leaders say the same thing. They point to several examples of how this year’s redistricting process has been better than years past. One, there are two new constitutional amendments requiring that districts be compact, and not favor either party. Lawmakers say they’ve done that—and they point to the fact that Republicans stand to lose several house seats in the upcoming cycle. In the case of the Senate—Haridopolos says it’s a testament to the process that half of the chamber’s 12 democrats signed off on the maps.

 “Some people’s style, like in Illinois, is to do a backroom deal to draw lines for districts. We didn’t do that. We put it all out there. Republicans and Democrats gave their honest opinion. That’s how we instill some trust back in government. By being candid with people.”  

 And what about those charges of voter suppression, and the state’ new elections law? Well, that’s still working its way through the courts. The Legislature passed the law last year, and supporters said it was to make sure people like the imaginary “Mickey C. Mouse” weren’t voting. They said the new law would prevent voter fraud. Something that the law’s critics have called a scare tactic.

Instances of actual voter fraud are rare. Florida recently completed its presidential primary election. And when questioned about the fraud issue, and whether there was any, Secretary of State Kurt Browning replied:

“We had none of that.” 

 Florida’s election law and its redistricting maps are still moving targets. The elections law is before a three-judge panel that is expected to issue a ruling sometime in the Spring, and the redistricting maps still have to be approved by state and federal judges. There’s a lot at stake in the run-up to the November election, and observers say, it’s all just part of the political process.

 

*Update: The Florida League of Women Voters, along with the National Council of LaRaza and Common Cause, have announced they will challenge the state's new voting maps.