Following orders from a judge to redraw the state’s voting district maps, since racial gerrymandering rendered the first draft unconstitutional, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature unveiled revised maps this week.
But the new maps look quite like the old ones, especially the boundaries of the snakelike District 5, one of the most gerrymandered seats in the country. In his ruling earlier this summer, Federal Judge Terry P. Lewis said District 5 “does not follow traditional political boundaries” and “connects two far flung urban populations” without legal justification. His opinion chided lawmakers, saying districts containing “finger-like extensions, narrow and bizarrely shaped tentacles, and hook like shapes…are constitutionally suspect and often indicative of racial and partisan gerrymandering.”
Winding awkwardly around the center of the state to include the urban centers of Gainesville and Orlando made District 5 about 50 percent African American, and the population has been represented in Washington by Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), a vocal member of Congressional Black Caucus, since 1992. But packing voters of color into Brown’s district has drained them out of neighboring districts, making those seats in Congress easier to win for Republicans, who — conveniently — were in charge of drawing the map in the first place. Though Florida is a swing-state in presidential elections, Republicans control 17 out of its 27 congressional districts.
The new map proposed by state legislators would reduce Brown’s district to 48 percent African-American, while boosting her neighbor’s district — represented by Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL) from 10 to over 12 percent African-American. Other than that tweak, the basic politics of the state are unlikely to change.
The government watchdog groups that challenged the maps in court, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause, are not satisfied with the new version, which they call a “slight alteration” that “does a disservice to the voters who have waited too long for constitutional districts.”
In a letter to the state’s House and Senate, they wrote: “There is no constitutional justification for a snaking north-south configuration of District 5, and we urge the Legislature to reject any such proposal in the Special Session.”
Their coalition is proposing this alternative map that they say would ensure minorities have a greater voice in Florida’s politics.
The same groups have struggled for years in Florida against what they see as a multi-pronged attack on the voting rights of minorities, the poor, the elderly, students and formerly incarcerated people — all groups that tend to cast ballots for Democratic candidates.
Common Cause has challenged Governor Rick Scott’s controversial voter roll purges, saying they’re “politically-motivated” attempts to “cut into the number of minority voters, particularly Hispanics.”
Florida Republicans later admitted that both the purges and other voting changes leading up to the 2012 election — including reduced early voting hours and restrictions on voter registration — were crafted intentionally to suppress the votes of likely Democrat supporters.
Florida’s leaders have until August 15th to finalize the revised district maps and submit them to a judge for approval. They’ll begin debating the proposed revisions on Monday, and civil and voting rights groups are expected to both testify inside the Capitol and protest outside of it.
“Redistricting is always about the distribution of political power, and people of color tends to be the pawns,” explained Leon Russell, the vice-chair of the NAACP. On a conference call with reporters Thursday, Russell said it’s become increasingly common, especially the 2013 loss of key protections in the Voting Rights Act, for Republican lawmakers to attempt to dilute minority voting strength to achieve their political goals. “If you can control who votes and where they vote, you control the power.”