Florida Politics

House backs off attempt to weaken anti-gerrymandering amendments

The Florida House abandoned its plan to make sweeping changes to the ‘Fair Districts’ provisions of the state Constitution.
The Florida House abandoned its plan to make sweeping changes to the ‘Fair Districts’ provisions of the state Constitution. TAMPA BAY TIMES

The Florida House on Friday agreed to back off an attempt to weaken the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution and passed a narrower Senate proposal that sets new guidelines for what happens when redistricting legal cases are unresolved in election years.

With no discussion, the House voted 116-0 for SB 352 and sent it to the governor. On Thursday, it replaced its bill, HB 953, with the Senate bill with no discussion. The Senate passed its measure 24-14.

It was a significant departure for the House, which had advanced a measure that would have required any challenges to a redistricting map to occur within 60 days after the maps are passed, effectively short-circuiting the time challengers can obtain records and documents to prepare a case. The House also wanted to turn the tables on the judiciary by subjecting judges in redistricting disputes to cross-examination.

The House’s proposals came after four tumultuous years of redistricting battles that cost taxpayers over $11 million, led to four trials, three special sessions, and eight rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.

At the core of the dispute was the Legislature’s implementation of the Fair Districts amendment to the Florida Constitution, which for the first time required that lawmakers draw political boundaries without the intent to favor incumbents or political parties. The litigation also forced lawmakers to testify under oath about their legislative intent, for the first time in state history. It also forced county supervisors of elections to revise precinct boundaries twice in four years to accommodate the changes.

The House bill was blasted by Thomas Zehnder, an attorney for the coalition of voting-rights groups that fought the legislature’s map in court. He called it “a blatant effort to write the Fair Districts Amendments out of the Constitution and permit the sort of gerrymandering that Florida’s citizens have overwhelmingly forbidden.”

Voting rights supporters also suggested that the provision to put judges under oath was unconstitutional and would have drawn another lawsuit.

In the face of that criticism, the House backed down and agreed instead to limit their changes to the Senate plan, which clarifies the dates when candidates can qualify for office if district boundaries are being challenged during an election year.

Under the bill, when district boundaries are uncertain due to ongoing litigation during a year of apportionment, candidates seeking to qualify by petition for Congress, the state Senate, or the state House of Representatives will be allowed to collect signatures from any registered voter in Florida, instead being restricted to gathering signatures only from their district.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas