TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans hailed passage of legislative and congressional redistricting maps Friday in the Florida House as historic because they are the first to be drawn under new anti-gerrymandering standards, but Democrats and other critics said it's too soon to celebrate.
They contend the plans violate those requirements in part by favoring incumbents and the Legislature's GOP majority. It's an issue that's expected to be decided in the courts.
Both measures passed on identical 80-37 party-line votes, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against. They now return to the Senate, which earlier passed its own versions, for final action possibly next week.
The two Fair Districts amendments voters adopted in 2010 prohibit lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts to favor or disadvantage incumbents or political parties. It also protects minority voting rights and requires that districts follow political or geographic boundaries whenever feasible.
The maps comply with those requirements as well as the federal Voting Rights Act, said Rep. Peter Nehr, a Palm Harbor Republican who co-chaired a redistricting subcommittee.
"Florida will become a national model of how redistricting should be accomplished," Nehr said. "These maps were drawn by the most open, transparent and bipartisan method in our history."
Three groups in the Fair Districts coalition that put the amendments on the ballot through a petition drive critiqued the maps in a letter last week to House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Leaders of the Florida League of Women Voters, National Council of La Raza and Common Cause Florida noted the state is almost equally divided between the two major political parties, but based on political performance data the maps would let Republicans maintain their current dominance.
They wrote that Florida was a key battleground state in the past two presidential elections: Republican George W. Bush won Florida with just 52.1 percent of the vote in 2008, while Democrat Barack Obama carried the state by an ever smaller margin with 50.9 percent.
The GOP, though, now has overwhelming majorities of 81-39 in the House, 28-12 in the Senate 19-6 in the congressional delegation. The latter will grow by two seats to 27 because of population growth.
The new maps would give the GOP at least a 2-1 advantage in all three bodies, the letter said.
Democratic Rep. Perry Thurston of Plantation noted the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the legality of the congressional Fair Districts amendment, writing that its purpose was to "level the playing field."
"These maps don't level the playing field," Thurston said. "Let's have 50-50 if that's what the state's makeup is."
Nearly a third of state House members would be shifted to a new district or paired with another incumbent, but the Senate map protects all incumbents except for those who cannot seek re-election because of term limits. The congressional plan also displaces several incumbents, but they are not required to live in the districts they represent. Two South Florida Republican congressmen already have announced plans to change districts because of the new maps.
Opponents also argued the plans "pack" large numbers of Democratic-voting minorities into a relatively small number of districts, leaving enough Republicans in surrounding districts to put them in the GOP column.
Republicans, though, insisted they have to maintain high levels of minority voters in certain districts to comply with the amendments and federal Voting Rights Act.
The House-passed congressional map increases a district held by Rep. Corrine Brown, one of Florida's three black Democratic members of Congress, from just below a 50 percent black voting age population to slightly above that mark. It also maintains black majorities in the other two districts.
Weatherford acknowledged the House map increases black voting age populations in five minority-majority and minority-access districts, but he said it also reduced the number with more than 60 percent black majorities from three to one.
Overall, the House map has 12 black-majority districts and three with black voting age populations between 30 percent and 50 percent. The Senate map has five districts with more than 30 percent black voting age populations, including two of more than 50 percent.
The House accepted the Senate's map for that chamber's districts. The Senate is expected to do the same for House's map when the legislative plan returns. The two congressional maps differ, but Weatherford is confident the Senate would accept the House version as a compromise.
House Democrats were united against the plan. Senate Democrats, though, were split with most voting in favor of the maps in the initial votes there.
The congressional map (SB 1174) then would go to Gov. Rick Scott and the legislative plan (SJR 1176) to the Florida Supreme Court. Both also must get preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act.
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