Voting Rights Supporters Divided Over Florida’s New Gerrymandered Maps

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Florida Democrats argue over the re-drawn voting maps.

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA—Civil rights leaders, voting rights groups and lawmakers in Florida are at odds over how to move forward on fixing the state’s voting maps, which a judge ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered last month. The new maps approved by a divided state legislature on Monday remain nearly identical to the old ones, forcing the advocates to decide whether they should support the latest version or push for more revisions.

In a letter to lawmakers, the groups that initially sued over the maps—the League of Women Voters and Common Cause—said they “remain concerned that [the new version] fails to address the constitutional defects in the original enacted map.”

They go on to say the new map, which tweaks 7 out of the state’s 27 districts, “continues to use a minority-marginalizing relic” and “destroys the ability to create an additional district with significant minority voting strength in Central Florida.”

Though the Florida Legislature did not vote on their alternative map, which draws a more compact District 5 that stretches horizontally rather than vertically, the groups say they’ll try to have it considered in the courtroom: “We will continue to urge Judge [Terry] Lewis to adopt a constitutionally compliant map for the 2014 elections.”

But the state’s NAACP, which is usually aligned with these organizations on voting rights and other issues, has come out against their proposal and for the legislature’s minor revisions that keep the gerrymandering intact.

“The east-to-west idea is no fix. Zero. It’s more harmful to African American voters,” Florida’s NAACP Vice President Dale Landry told ThinkProgress.

Specifically, he said the League of Women Voters’ map relies on flawed census data that counts incarcerated African Americans—who are disenfranchised in Florida, often even after their release—as members of the voting public.

“We’re all in it for the same interests: to help insure that those who are often overlooked, and the voices that are often unheard are given the opportunity to speak up and be heard,” said Landry. “I think their interests are pure, but they don’t understand some of the demographics.”

When asked to respond to those who say the current maps drain voters of color out of surrounding districts, making them less politically competitive, Landry said: “I’ll have to defer to others. On that part, I don’t know.”

Florida Democrats argue over the state's re-drawn voting maps.

Florida Democrats argue over the state’s re-drawn voting maps.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Florida’s lawmakers were similarly divided over the map changes, with some Democrats saying they “did the right thing” as others complained on the Senate floor that the changes were just “window dressing.”

“We’ve done the least amount possible,” said Senator Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), just before voting nay. “This doesn’t do anything to change the Judge’s determination that the original map was drawn for political purposes. This is going to result, probably, in the exact same congressional makeup in terms of Democrats and Republicans that we have now.”

His colleague Joseph Abruzzo (D-Palm Beach) added that he wouldn’t support a map until it looked “more like Florida,” and noted that the new districts still favor Republican control.

“This is a 50/50 state,” he said. “This is battleground state. Yet we have a congressional delegation not anywhere near 50/50. Quite frankly, it’s completely out of order.”

But some Democrats disagreed, and still more expressed a conflicted view about changing the gerrymandered maps, especially the boundaries of District 5, which Judge Lewis called “bizarrely shaped” and “constitutionally suspect.”

State Senator Gwen Margolis (D-Miami) acknowledged that District 5 looks “awful” and “weird,” but said stretching across far-flung African American communities in Central Florida was the only way those communities could ever elect Rep. Corrine Brown to the US Congress.

“It made a lot of people happy,” she explained. “They were voting for somebody they knew, somebody they went to church with. It has been a boon to the people who now have their voices heard.”

Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) agreed, and was one of a handful of Democrats who voted for the slightly tweaked maps. She told ThinkProgress: “I’m not saying that someone not of color couldn’t represent a community of color, but it is important that we have members of color who are more intimately familiar with the issues that affect African Americans and other minorities.”

But others in the state’s African American Caucus blasted the new map for continuing to “pack” people of color into District 5 while “bleaching” all of the districts around it.

“I cannot be quiet and accept that we’re talking about a single district [being represented by an African American] when the population of Florida suggests that one is not enough,” said Geraldine Thompson (D-Orange) in a passionate speech on the floor. “We should have minorities given every opportunity to vote for individuals of their choice. These maps benefit a political party and we’ve not done anything to change that.”

Lawmakers and advocates alike expressed dismay that the revised maps will likely not go into effect until after the midterm elections—unless Judge Lewis orders otherwise. Absentee and military ballots have already been mailed out, and state officials estimate it would cost millions of dollars to redo them. But Senate Minority Leader Christopher Smith says there are factors at play that should override the cost concerns.

“I fundamentally believe people shouldn’t be voting in unconstitutional districts,” he said. “Sometimes inefficiency is the price we pay for democracy. Democracy has costs. It may not be efficient. But If we have to send out new ballots, fine, we should do it.”

Judge Lewis has ordered the map be submitted to him by this Friday, and he’ll convene a hearing on August 20th to determine the fate of both the new district lines and the election dates.