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Competing Reapportionment Amendments on the Ballot

The battle over redistricting in Florida is attracting dueling lawsuits. The state NAACP and other citizens groups are suing over an amendment that lawmakers placed on the November ballot ... and two US Representatives are counter-suing over two amendments paced by a coalition of activist groups. The outcome of the dispute could affect minority representation, which party controls the Legislature and how it spends taxpayer's money during the next ten years.

Currently there are three ballot initiatives dealing with how the state will draw legislative and congressional districts.  Two were placed there by a coalition of citizen’s groups that collected more than a million-and-a-half petition signatures.

State lawmakers put the third amendment on the ballot after a long debate on the last day of the legislative session.

The Florida league of Women Voters was among the strongest supporters of the citizen-backed amendments.  Speaking at the Winter Park Farmers' Market, near the railroad tracks, League President Dierdre McNabb explained why she believes the reforms are needed. 

"Four different districts come together [here]," she said, "so we have four different representatives serving us in Congress and four in the legislature so generally, people have no idea who their elected official is….how do you hold someone accountable if you don’t know who your elected official is.”

That’s why the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and several other groups mounted a petition drive to get the first two amendments on the ballot.  Those amendments would require that new districts follow recognized geographical boundaries. The proposals would also prohibit drawing districts in a way that denies equal opportunity to minorities and outlaw districts that favor or disfavor any political party.Republican State Senator Mike Haridopolos says that sounds good but, in practice, it’s impossible. Haridopolos says he invited members of the citizens' coalition to meet with lawmakers to draw districts according to those guidelines.

 “We went over and tried to meet these standards” Haridopolos said “and what we found is that we favored one political party and favored the incumbent thus disfavoring the challenger and the challenging party.”

Haridopolos said, no matter how they tried to draw the districts over the course of numerous meetings, one party or the other always ended up with an advantage. That violates the both the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, Haridopolos says, and that’s why he co-sponsored the third amendment.

It requires that any redistricting plan conform with existing state and federal guidelines. It also states that, so-called, “Communities of Common Interest” may be considered as criteria for drawing districts.

Haridopolos says those communities of interest could be organized according to race, language, geography or other factors. “There’s a recent US Supreme Court case that says if you use race exclusively to justify a minority district,” Haridopolos said “ it will get thrown out by the courts and that’s why it’s important to use the term ‘Communities of Interest.’”

Haridopolos says if the citizen backed amendments were passed they would lead to less minority representation in both Tallahassee and Washington. He points out that two prominent black state senators, Al Lawson, the Senate Democratic leader and Gary Siplin, leader of the Senate’s black caucus both support the legislature’s amendment because, they say, it will protect minority voting rights.

But Democratic State Representative Geraldine Thompson of Orlando, an African-American representing a predominantly black district, disagrees. She says the real reason incumbent lawmakers, black, white and Hispanic are backing the third amendment is to nullify the citizen backed amendments, protect their own seats and hang onto power.  “So you have one-point-seven million people who signed petitions to get amendments 5 and 6 on the ballot and now this 3rd amendment says that even if those amendments get 60 percent of the vote, they won’t count” she said.

Last month, the NAACP and several other groups filed suit to remove the third amendment from the ballot. Several days later, Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami filed a competing suit to throw out the first two amendments.  Now, it will be up to a court to decide which of the competing amendments will appear on the November ballot.


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