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Drawing District Lines

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – This November's election will determine who controls redistricting. Usually, the party with a majority of the members in the Legislature has the upper hand in the once-a-decade political chore of designing districts for Legislative and Congressional seats. Two proposed Constitutional Amendments on the ballot this year would provide guidelines for lawmakers to follow. However, leading lawmakers say the proposals are confusing and won't provide much help.

State Representative Dean Cannon welcomed Ellen Freidin to a meeting of a joint legislative redistricting committee.

"I'm very glad that Miss Freidin has agreed to come on behalf of fair districts. Up to this point, we have had a lot of unanswered questions, and my hope is she can answer some of those questions today."

Freidin is an attorney, a member of the 1998 Constitutional Revision Commission, and a driving force behind the Fair Districts Florida initiatives. The two proposals have raised alarms among Florida lawmakers. Freidin did not agree to address a state committee until her group gathered enough signatures to get the proposals on the November ballot.

Once in Tallahassee, lawmakers grilled her for four hours. Much of the cross examination was a back and forth about the meaning of words. If Freidin felt like she was in a lion's den, then she was wrestling with donkeys and elephants. A handful of Democratic Representatives would huddle with her during breaks, reminding her she was not under a subpoena and could leave, but she gamely fielded the same questions from different Senators and Representatives, Republicans and Democrats.

Fair Districts would require that districts not favor or disfavor any candidate or political party, be compact, try to respect city and county boundaries and comply with the Voting Rights Act. Many lawmakers wanted Fair District definitions for the terms used.

Jacksonville Representative Jennifer Carroll asked, "How do we then define what is the voter's choice and what is fairness, what is compact, what is geographic boundaries? Is that going to be in definitions that we are going to be able to use?"

The current standard lawmakers use has three factors, one person one vote, contiguous districts, and compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Most other states have more rules. Just two other states match Florida with so few guidelines, and twelve other states stipulate that the districts not favor any candidate or political party.

Lawmakers say that requirement in Florida could violate the Voting Rights Act. Right now, Florida has six congressional districts drawn to elect minorities: three African Americans and three Hispanics; three Democrats and three Republicans. The current plan was approved by federal courts. Lawmakers say they can't protect those minority seats if Fair Districts becomes law.

Freidin says she is confident they have the expertise to do so. Senator Mike Haritopoulos asked Freidin to take two weeks and show the Legislature how it can be done.

"Theory is one thing, practice is another. You have an outstanding group of folks who got this thing on the ballot, which is not an easy thing to do, and we have existing data from 2002 What we ask is an easy question: are you willing to draw maps so that we can have a better idea how we can serve our constitutional requirement as members of the legislature, yes or no?"

Freidin said no one could do what Haritopoulos asked because it takes a balancing of priorities by a legislature to draw district maps. The Fair Districts proposals will be on the November ballot as Amendments 5 and 6. Florida lawmakers are required to have new districts drawn in time for the 2012 election.