As legislators prepare to release the first drafts of their redistricting maps today, racial divisions in Florida’s increasingly diverse state have become a tense undercurrent coursing through the redistricting debate in recent weeks.
Last month, Republican Sen. Alan Hays angered his Cuban colleagues when he suggested the citizenship of every Hispanic resident be verified before legislators draw any Hispanic majority districts. Two weeks ago, Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich criticized a proposal by the NAACP for not reflecting the new standards approved by voters in November 2010.
At the center of the debate is the new constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which prohibit legislators from making it more difficult for language and racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice when they embark on the once-a-decade reapportionment process. Known in redistricting terms as “retrogression,” it means that minorities end up in worse shape after redistricting than they began.
There is no clear definition in the amendments or in federal law for how to avoid retrogression, and legislators are reluctant to come up with a definition in writing. So House and Senate redistricting committees are proceeding cautiously, expecting the courts to resolve the conflicts.
Absent more guidance, the issue will debated by lawmakers for months and “has the potential to deepen schisms that are already there,’’ warned Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida’s College of Arts and Sciences, who has co-authored a book on Florida redistricting.