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Shots fired: Legislators pass redistricting maps, lawsuit launched

After months of polite posturing between Republican legislative leaders and the proponents of the state's new anti-gerrymandering redistricting rules, the first shots were fired Thursday.
The Florida Senate gave final approval to the state's political maps for the next decade and sent them to the attorney general and governor for review. Moments later, a coalition of voter groups announced its intent to file a lawsuit and and the Florida Democratic Party filed another lawsuit challenging the congressional map as unconstitutional.
"The Legislature’s Congressional Plan is filled with unconstitutional political gerrymanders intended to favor one political party and certain incumbents, while disfavoring the other political party and other incumbents,'' wrote lawyers for the League of Women Voters, the Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause. Download State Law Complaint Congressional Map

Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement that he hoped the courts will "step in to implement the will of the people -- a job the GOP in Tallahassee failed to accomplish.” Download Draft Complaint Challenging Congressional Plan

Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and the Senate's incoming Senate president who has shepherded the Senate's redistricting process for the past seven months said he was "not surprised."

"We have people who all along had a lawsuit strategy and hope that they could find some judge somewhere who will agree with their contentions,'' Gaetz told reporters. "The sad part is now the taxpayers of Florida have to be dragged into court by special interest groups who always intended to be dissatisfied."

It was the expected beginning of what could be a protracted series of lawsuits as the Democrat-leaning groups that worked to embed the new redistricting rules into the state constitution find fault with the product produced by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The Senate vote Thursday culminates a seven-month exercise that included unprecedented public input, through the aid of technology, and was driven by a historic constitutional change.

New guidelines imposed by the Fair Districts amendments approved by voters in 2010 prohibit lawmakers from protecting incumbents and political parties when redrawing their maps to reflect changes in the population. The new rules also required that they make districts more compact and protect minority voting strength.

The congressional map, approved by the Senate 32-5 must still be signed by the governor. The Legislative maps, approved 31-7, go to the attorney general, who is expected to immediately send them to the Florida Supreme Court, which will have 30 days to determine if they comply with the state's redistricting standards and protect minorities.

Gaetz defended the maps as adhering to the new rules which prohibit lawmakers from any intent to protect incumbents and requiring them to protect minority voting strength and draw compact districts.

"There is not diminishment of opportunities to elect candidates of their choice" and said there is no evidence of favoring incumbents or challengers.

He compared the lawsuit to the Fair Districts group complaining about being "hung with a new rope."

The lawsuit alleges that U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz Balart and Dan Webster attempted "to influence members of the Legislature and its staff to 'improve' the composition of the new districts to make them more favorable.'' It suggests legislators intentionally rejected a more fair alternative plan, packed minorities into districts to diminish their influence in surrounding districts and therefore "diminished their ability to participate in the political process." 

It cites District 20, the newly drawn Broward and Palm Beach-based district, recently abandoned by Congressman Allen West, as an illogically drawn that "at one point, the northernmost appendate is barely wide enough to cover half of a highway and an elementary school."

Former Delray Beach Rep. Adam Hasner left the U.S. Senate race to announce he will run in the new District 20 and face Democratic challengers Lois Frankel and Kristen Jacobs.
The lawsuit also claims that, despite the fact that there are more than 500,000 Democrats registered to vote than Republicans, Florida's presence as a presidential battleground state -- having nearly split its vote between Democrat and Republican candidates every statewide elections for the last decade -- justifies a more evenly drawn congressional map.

Instead, they argue, the congressional map is designed to create twice as many safe Republican seats as Democratic seats in the 27-member congressional delegation. The remaining competitive districts, they allege, favor Republicans by a 5 to 1 advantage. 

An independent Herald/Times analysis of voter performance found that there were 16 safe Republican seats and 9 safe Democratic seats with two true toss-up districts. 

Gaetz mockingly referred to the analysis by the Herald/Times and joked that "if it's in the newspaper, of course, it must be true."

He also referred to news reports that congressional candidates -- from Broward Congressman Allen West to Palm Beach's Tom Rooney -- "are scurrying around" and announcing that they will move to another district "because they are discovering that these district lines are drawn not for their convenience but in many cases for their inconvenience.

"So what?'' Gaetz asked. "We did not look in any way at favoring incumbents to remain elected or for challengers to unseat incumbents."

Meanwhile, Democrats warned that the court will throw out the Senate redistricting map as well. While the House map pits 38 incumbents against each other, the Senate map protects the district of every returning incumbent of either party.