House approves redistricting maps

New congressional maps approved Tuesday by the Florida Senate. For more detailed district maps and statistical information visit Flsenate.gov/session/redistricting
New congressional maps approved Tuesday by the Florida Senate. For more detailed district maps and statistical information visit Flsenate.gov/session/redistricting

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – New districts for the House, Senate and the Florida congressional delegation passed the House on party-line votes Friday, all but clearing the way for looming legal battles over whether the plans follow state anti-gerrymandering standards and federal civil rights laws.

The maps for the Legislature (SJR 1176) and Congress (SB 1174) were approved on twin 80-37 votes, sending them to the Senate for final vote that is expected to be a formality.

After that, the legislative plan will head to the Florida Supreme Court for its approval while the congressional proposal goes to Gov. Rick Scott. One or both maps are likely to face challenges under either state or federal laws.

Senate leaders have indicated they hope to take up the maps and approve the changes as soon as Tuesday.

In the meantime, Democrats hammered away at the maps as partisan measures that defied the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts standards, approved by Florida voters in a referendum last year.

"We can do better than this," said Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat who served as his party's lead on redistricting. "The people of the state of Florida deserve better than this."

Republicans countered that the Democrats were trying to bolster the inevitable legal challenges while ignoring that the maps took scrupulous trouble to follow the new standards. The GOP pointed repeatedly to media reports indicating that 38 incumbents would be forced into districts with each other.

"If you're voting no simply because an attorney who is not a part of this process and a part of this chamber is telling you to vote no, that's wrong," said House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

For the most part, though, attention was already turning to the court battles shaping up over whether the maps follow the Fair Districts amendments. Democrats predicted that the Legislature would be forced to take another stab at drawing maps after those reviews.

"We have no doubt that the Florida courts will ultimately step in to protect the constitutional rights of every Floridian and throw out these maps," said Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux.

Already, Democrats were signaling the contours of the legal challenges the maps would face.

The Senate map is likely to come under fire for being extraordinarily helpful to the chamber's incumbents.

"It can't be just a coincidence that every one, every single one -- not just most of them -- every single one had a district that improved for their re-election chances," said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West. "When Amendment 5 specifically says you're not supposed to protect incumbents, I would at least think that's an issue."

House Democrats also argue that their chamber's map should more closely follow the partisan makeup of the state, where Democrats hold an edge in voter registration but Republicans hold an overwhelming advantage in the House, Senate and congressional delegation. In 2010, Gov. Rick Scott won 73 House districts under the new maps while his Democratic opponent won just 47.

But the GOP argued that elections were won on better ideas, and that attempts to arrange an even split in the chamber would have constituted the very gerrymandering that the Fair Districts amendments were meant to ban.

After the vote, House Speaker Dean Cannon was hesitant to address what steps the Legislature might take if the maps were thrown out by the courts. The House is already embroiled in a legal challenge to Amendment 6 -- which governs congressional redistrict -- though Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the chamber still followed the rules.

"I'm hopeful that the courts may approve them as passed," Cannon said. "We don't know. ... We'll sort of cross that bridge when we come to it."