Voting-rights groups pushing for new districts to be drawn in public

BY BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Two voting-rights organizations that led the legal battle against congressional districts later found to be unconstitutional called Monday for a new map to be drawn in public – a demand swiftly rejected by legislative leaders.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida released a letter to Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, taking issue with the top lawmakers’ announcement that legislative staff and lawyers would be secluded as they draw a map intended to comply with a Florida Supreme Court decision rejecting current districts.

That map will serve as a “base” for lawmakers as they consider amendments and give ultimate approval to a congressional redistricting plan during a special legislative session that starts next Monday.

‘Base map’ concern
In a 5-2 decision last month, the Supreme Court struck down eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts for violating one of the two anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments adopted by voters in 2010.

But the League of Women Voters and Common Cause said keeping map-drawing sessions private “undermines the Legislature’s assurances of an open and transparent remedial process” and could violate the Supreme Court’s call for the redistricting process to take place in public. The court majority found fault with key lawmakers making some decisions about redistricting plans outside of the public eye.

“We believe that the ‘base map’ should be discussed and drawn in public, as that map will play a central role in the legislative process of drawing the congressional redistricting plan,” wrote League President Pamela Goodman and Peter Butzin, chairman of Common Cause Florida. “We hope and expect that the Legislature will provide a mechanism for the public to view the drawing of the ‘base map’ and any associated discussions.”

Streaming online proposed
Goodman and Butzin wrote that the Legislature could, for example, stream any map-drawing sessions live over the Internet.

In the court opinion issued last month, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that members of the court’s majority “encourage the Legislature to conduct all meetings in which it makes decisions on the new map in public and to record any non-public meetings for preservation.”

A spokesman for Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, brushed off a question about the letter Monday.

“As with similar politically motivated letters that have been received regarding the redistricting process, the speaker has no comment,” Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams wrote in an email.

Explaining the process
Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the process that the Legislature has laid out already complies with the court’s decision because legislative staff members will have to explain their draft of the map to lawmakers during a public meeting.

“The vote on that map –  whether to accept it, reject it or amend it – would be the first decision the Legislature makes,” Betta said. “This vote will take place in an open meeting after public input and debate. Likewise, if the map is adopted by the Legislature, any subsequent amendment would be presented and adopted in a similar fashion. In that manner, every decision will be made in public.”

Indeed, legislative leaders have painted their decision to wall off the redistricting staff as an effort to keep lawmakers, political consultants and members of Congress from meddling in the new districts. Those involved with drawing the districts have been told to avoid conversations about the map with anyone who might have an interest and to report any suggestions that the Legislature is violating the Fair Districts amendment to Gardiner or Crisafulli.

Four meetings
Responding to another concern raised by Goodman and Butzin, Betta said lawmakers would hear public input during meetings scheduled to begin next week. She said the Senate has included extra meetings of the committee charged with redistricting in case they’re needed.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee has scheduled four meetings – one in conjunction with the House Redistricting Committee – during the special session that starts Monday and runs through Aug. 21. The Senate is also scheduled to hold floor sessions Monday and Aug. 19 through Aug. 21.

Last month, the House announced that it expected two House Redistricting Committee meetings, including the joint one with the Senate committee, and for the chamber to be in session Aug. 17 and 18.

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