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Amendments 5 and 6 Would Change the Way Districts are Drawn.

October 14, 2010 | FPR - Florida's 3rd Congressional District is often cited as an example of the unusual nature of the state's congressional and legislative districts. It's represented by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown and stretches more than 120 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando. It's only one mile wide in some places and, by design, includes several largely African-American communities. Amendments 5 and 6 would do away with rambling districts like this one but opponents of the measures say they would hurt minority representation.

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From 1871 to 1992, Florida didn’t have a single black U.S. representative. That changed when Corrine Brown won a legal challenge, requiring the courts to craft 3 districts that bundled minority voters. Since then, the Jacksonville congresswoman has been unbeatable.

Nearly half the people in Brown’s district are African-American, compared to just 15 % of the population statewide. But that could change if voters approve Amendments 5 and 6. The measures would require lawmakers to use geographic boundaries like rivers and city and county lines whenever possible. They would make it illegal to draw districts that favor a political party and, supporters say, would still protect minority representation. At a recent campaign event, Brown said that’s impossible.

"You can’t do what you’re saying. You can’t draw districts that don’t favor one and favor the other. I mean if you read it, it’s very complicated.” Brown said.

She led a failed legal challenge against the amendments, saying they would dilute minority representation. Her unlikely ally was Republican State Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents a largely Cuban-American district in South Florida.

"If they become the law of the land,” Diaz-Balart said, “you would have numerous minority districts, both African American and Hispanic districts, in the State House, in the State Senate and in Congress where minorities have had the ability to elect candidates of their choice. That will go away.”

Ellen Freiden, the campaign chair for Fair Districts Florida, disagrees. “These are incumbents who are worried about keeping their seats.” Freiden says. “They draw districts that keep incumbents in office and retain the partisan domination of whatever party is in power, and that’s really unfair to the voters.”

Responding to Brown and Diaz-Balart’s claim that the measures would hurt minority representation, Freiden points to endorsements by the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and the NAACP. Those groups say the amendments would help minorities in the long-term by keeping local communities together. That’s echoed by most state level Democrats, including former Representative John Lewis, a long-time ally of Corrine Brown who’s spoken out in support of the redistricting changes.

"I know that that may be incongruous with the way things have been done in Tallahassee in the past,” Lewis said  “but I think that we’re going to be headed more toward that, where’s there’s a compactness and a completeness to districts. I like it personally.”

This party split makes sense to Stephen Baker. He’s a political scientist at Jacksonville University. He says the current system concentrates minority districts, helping Republicans win more seats statewide.

"So you have some minority Democrats who are guaranteed a position and they tend to be most opposed to it.” Baker said. “In general, however, most of the Democrats in Florida will be in favor of the proposed amendments.”

Because, Baker said, it’s nearly impossible for Democrats to gain power under the current system, at least for most of them.

PROGRAM NOTE: Tune in to 90.7 WMFE-FM Friday morning at 6:35 and 8:35 to learn about Amendment Eight which would loosen state requirements on public school class sizes.



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