State Politics

Redistricting proposals may get new challenge

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature again may ask the Florida Supreme Court to keep off the 2010 ballot two citizen initiatives designed to limit gerrymandering in congressional and legislative redistricting, a pair of House and Senate leaders said Wednesday.

They cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling they say could reduce election opportunities for minorities if voters adopt the proposed state constitutional amendments — contrary to what the measures’ summaries say.

“That concerns me greatly, and I think it concerns our fellow members greatly, too,” said House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “We’ll reach out to our counsel and ask for options, but I think that (going back to the Florida Supreme Court) may make sense.”

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, told his chamber’s redistricting panel, which he chairs, that he would ask staffers to outline possible legal options including another high court challenge when it meets again next month.

The state high court in January rejected the Republican-controlled Legislature’s initial challenge to the accuracy of the amendments’ titles and ballot summaries.

The nearly identical proposals, one each for congressional and legislative reapportionment, would prohibit drawing districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. The districts also would have to be compact and, “where feasible,” follow city, county and geographic boundaries.

The summaries also say districts cannot “be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.”

That statement has become misleading due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s March opinion in a North Carolina case, said House special counsel Miguel De Grandy, a former Republican legislator.

De Grandy told the House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning, chaired by Cannon, that the federal justices ruled North Carolina’s legislature had to abide by a state constitutional provision similar to the Florida proposals if minorities make up less than half of a district’s voting age population.

Only districts that exceed 50 percent minority populations are exempt under the federal Voting Rights Act from North Carolina’s provision that requires counties to remain “whole,” the Supreme Court said.

“It really might result in a practical reduction of minority representation,” Cannon said.

The House currently has 10 “crossover” districts that have substantial minority populations but less than 50 percent, De Grandy said.

Five of those seats are held by black representative and one by a Hispanic lawmaker.

The Senate has seven crossover districts. Five of those seats are held by black senators.

Of Florida’s 25 congressional districts, two fit the crossover criteria and both are held by black representatives.

A bipartisan group called FairDistrictsFlorida.org is collecting petitions for the proposed amendments.

The group’s campaign chairwoman, Ellen Freidin, said she was comfortable with the state Supreme Court’s prior approval of the ballot summaries.

“We cannot understand how a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision would make a bit of difference to that,” she said.

Haridopolos said the Reapportionment Committee invited the group to make a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting but no one appeared.

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