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After redistricting passage, opponents prep for lawsuits

Battle lines are being drawn in Florida. Democrats filed a lawsuit against a congressional redistricting map immediately after it was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.  The Democrats contend that map and ones approved for the Florida House and Senate    violate new anti-gerrymandering standards. And James Call tells us, they and non-partisan groups that worked to pass the new law say the maps are attempts to circumvent the law and manipulate the political process.  

About a hundred citizens marched up a hill to the state Capitol Complex. They gathered between the Supreme Court Building and the Capitol building to protest what they called illegal gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts by the ruling Republican Party.  Aaron Ellis is pushing a bicycle and lending his voice to the effort.

"The building we’re walking to right now in the Capitol there are people who are trying to reorganize districts and change voter registration in order to disenfranchise different demographics of the voting population and that is unacceptable in a representative democracy.  So we assemble and make our voices heard."

The march and rally kicked off a voting rights workshop organized by the Legislature’s Black caucus. Speakers including election officials, religious leaders and legal experts, detailed how an election law passed last year and is now being challenged in court and new redistricting maps, also being challenged in court, are part of efforts to diminish the political influence of minorities and likely Democratic voters.  

Redistricting occurs once a decade. The Legislature must draw new districts for state house seats and the congressional delegation to reflect changes in population.  This year they had to follow guidelines known as Amendments Five and Six approved by voters. The Fair Districts amendments required that the districts be compact, contiguous and prohibit favoring any candidate or diluting minority influence.

The Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging the congressional map for not adhering to the guidelines. The League of Women Voters and Common Cause say they will file suit as soon as the Governor signs off on the map.  And both groups say they will challenge the new House and Senate seats once they are approved by Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Destin Senator Don Gaetz defends the maps and refers to the plaintiffs as special interest groups who always intended to be dissatisfied. Gaetz led the seven month effort to draw the new maps.  

"It’s the fairest most open most transparent in Florida history. And perhaps in American history. The districts are more compact than ever before. The districts are more contagious than ever before and when you look at issues of minority rights and minority participation I think you see a diligent effort to be faithful to Amendments Five and Six."

The plaintiffs say the congressional map packs artificially high numbers of minorities into certain districts, calling attention to the serpentine like Jacksonville to Orlando district of Democrat Corrine Brown. They say tactics like that explain how Republicans gained overwhelming majorities at the state house and in the congressional delegation even though Democrats have a 500,000 more registered voters.

Former Florida Secretary of State Bruce Smathers, who implemented election reforms when he was the state’s chief elections official in the late 1970s, all but, calls this year’s redistricting effort a charade. Smathers, a Democrat, says the Republicans expected the legal challenges and incorporated the confusion the lawsuits create into a plan to protect its majorities in the 2012 elections.

"They know it is going to be thrown out by the courts. That just helps them because it is difficult to challenge somebody when you don’t know what the district looks like. How do you get supporters, how do you raise money? How can you say, 'I can beat that incumbent when they know they courts will force them to redistrict just before the qualifying time."

Wesley Chapel Representative Will Weatherford led the House in drawing the new maps. He calls the map historic for pitting 38 incumbents against each other, in essence drawing a third of the House membership out of their district. Weatherford defends his work saying he followed the letter of the law and honored the constitution.

"I’m not going to try to predict what’s going to happen in court or what litigation may or may not come. My job has been to do just the best job I can to try to make this fair to try to make this open and try to make it legal and I think we achieved all three. "

It is unclear whether the legal wrangling over the new districts line will be settled in time for the candidates qualifying period for the 2012 election. Qualifying for the August primary is currently scheduled for June 4th through 8th.