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House passes redistricting maps with a party line vote

The Florida House voted along party lines for three redistricting maps Friday that proponents say reflect the state’s growing diversity and meet new anti-gerrymandering standards.

But Democrats, who united in opposition in the 80-38 votes, said the proposals are unconstitutional because they manipulate political boundaries for Republican advantage, particularly a Senate map that appears to protect every returning incumbent.

Despite the criticism, House Republican leaders congratulated themselves for finishing the maps with four weeks left in the session, and doing it with unprecedented public input.

“What we have just done is historic and rare,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon after the House finished two-days of lengthy debates.

The maps rewrite legislative and congressional district lines to accommodate the last decade of growth. They create two new congressional seats, bringing the state total to 27, and they are intended to increase the number of Hispanics elected to the state House, Senate and Congress.

But Rep. Perry Thurston, the incoming Democratic leader from Plantation, blasted the maps as failing to accommodate the desires of voters when they approved the anti-gerrymandering Amendments 5 and 6.

“These maps don’t level the playing field,’’ he said, suggesting that with Florida Democrats having about 500,000 more registered voters than Republicans, the margine in the state House should be closer to 60-60, not the projected 73-47 split expected in the maps.

He pointed to the proposed Senate map, which appear to endanger no sitting incumbents from either party and called it “the most blatant incumbent protection map we’ve ever seen.” He chastised Republican leaders for agreeing to accept the “sight unseen” Senate map without alterations as “an abdication of our responsibility.”

House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford countered Thurston repeatedly. He said there was no intent to favor a political party and accused Democrats of criticizing the maps as part of a legal strategy to challenge them in court.

“If the drafters of this amendment wanted 60 Republicans and 60 Democrats, they would have put it in the Constitution,’’ Weatherford said. “To create any type of political outcome violates the letter of the law, so we’re not going to do it and we didn’t’ do it.’’

While the Senate and Congressional maps appear to spare incumbents, the House map pits at least 38 lawmakers against each other next November, forcing many of them to move or rent apartments in adjoining districts, run for another elective office, end their careers or run against each other. It's the result, Republican leaders said, of their incumbent-blind approach to drawing districts.

“I hope I’m not the only one moving,’’ joked Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “I hope it’ll help the housing market here in Florida.”

The House and Senate maps will go to the Senate next week for expected quick approval. They will then be reviewed by the attorney general and sent to the Florida Supreme Court. The high court will have 30 days to review them and either approve, or send them back to lawmakers for a do-over.

The congressional map will go to the governor, who will have seven days to sign it and submit it to the U.S. Justice Department for the required Voting Rights Act review.

The Republican-led legislature fast-tracked the redistricting process with the hope that if their newly-minted maps are rejected by the court, lawmakers can rewrite them before their session adjourns on March 9.