Senate looks to maintain minority districts as map-making advancesby John Kennedy | October 18th, 2011
Maintaining the current number of districts electing black and Hispanic lawmakers to the House, Senate and Congress from Florida was named the top priority Tuesday of the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee, a potentially powerful political and legal stance which could blunt Democratic efforts to regain seats.
Backing a motion by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former Florida Republican Party chairman, the GOP-dominated panel agreed to set priorities, or “tiers” as some lawmakers described, as they begin redrawing the state’s political boundaries.
The once-a-decade process has become complicated after voters last fall approved a pair of constitutional amendments which require that lawmakers not work to protect incumbents or party influence when drawing the lines.
Safeguarding seats that have elected black or Hispanic lawmakers, however, has become another story.
The federal Voting Rights Act requires that lawmakers not take steps that could prevent minorities from electing a candidate of their choice. The Reapportionment Committee interpreted that provision Tuesday as urging they start map-drawing by reinstating districts currently held by minority lawmakers.
“Racial protection is clearly paramount,” Thrasher told the committee.
On the tiers outlined by the panel, creation of districts that are compact or respect geographic boudaries — such as city or county lines — are lesser priorities, although they were central parts of the voter-approved amendments.
“Compactness will probably be decided by the courts, because we have no standard definition,” said Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Indeed, there are few definitions guiding redistricting — only past court opinions, beginning with those stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court. But Tuesday’s determination by the committee could prove an influential milepost as lawmakers engage in line-drawing, which is expected to dominate next spring’s legislative session.
The campaign resulting in voter approval of Amendments 5 and 6 last fall was financed by Democratic-leaning organizations, individuals and unions. The new standards are aimed at discouraging the formation of multi-county districts, including those with voting populations roughly 50 percent black, who usually vote Democratic.
Ruling Republicans have helped their own numbers with these minority-access districts, since concentrating Democratic voters often allows the GOP to win neighboring districts. With the committee agreeing to use current minority districts as the starting-off point for map-building, Republican dominance could endure — even with Democrats holding a 600,000 statewide voter edge.
Democrats on the committee offered little resistence Tuesday. Only Rep. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, challenged the committee’s theme, pointing out that voters in Jacksonville recently elected a black mayor, Alvin Brown, who had support from all corners of the community.
Braynon said voting performance — not just the raw numbers of voting population — is what the committee should consider.