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Senate counters attack on its redistricting maps

The Republican-led Florida Senate shot back Friday on the three-barrel attack by the NAACP, a coalition of voters group and the Florida Democratic Party with a 106-page brief that attempts to counter claims that the Florida Supreme Court should reject the second Senate redistricting plan and rewrite it themselves.

The court is scheduled to hear the case a week from today and it will then have 30 days to decide to accept or reject the maps or 60 days to write them itself. As a bit of a reminder of the ticking time limits between now the candidate qualifying, which will take place June 4-8, in time for the Aug. 14 primary, Secretary of State Ken Detzner filed a memo to the court that outlined the election year deadlines.

The Senate argues that the alternative map offered by the Democrats “engineers Democratic districts” because it achieves a 20-20 partisan balance and diminished the ability of Hispanics in South Florida to elect candidates of their choice.

The Democrats had argued, in its brief filed April 10, that despite the court’s March 9 ruling that provided a road map for fixing the Senate’s first flawed map, the new version “is still replete with evidence of an intent to favor incumbents and the dominant political party.’’

The coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Florida and the National Council of La Raza, said the Senate botched the second map and “did exactly as it had done before – protected incumbents and attempted to gain maximum partisan advantage for the party controlling the Legislature.”

It said that “some of the incumbent protection maneuvers and partisan power grabs in this plan are even more egregious than those in the plan this Court already invalidated.”

But in a full-throated counter attack, the Senate argued that it “acted in good faith” and its second map “eliminates any features suggestive of intent to favor an incumbent or political party, including use of a manifestly incumbent-neutral numbering system.” It urged the court to limit its review to the eight districts it originally targeted and the numbering system.

It strongly suggested that the court should not redraw the districts itself, saying that “upsets the constitutional balance and deprives the Legislature of its constitutional right (and responsibility) to remedy plan defects” and would encourage future opponents to “game the system.”

Both the party and the coalition also saved their most potent fire power for their last shot. Despite months of attempts by Republican legislative leaders to get the Democrats to submit a plausible map, they waited until it mattered most and presented their plan to the court, urging the justices to do the redesign itself.

No surprise: if adopted, the Democrat’s map would likely create a 20-20 partisan split in the state Senate.

“This Court will doubtlessly take no joy in the task of drawing a Senate plan as is now required under Article III, Section 16, Florida Constitution,’’ the Democratic Party wrote. “Nevertheless, this Court is qualified, competent and well prepared to do so” and should be “the final guardian of the citizens’ rights to a fair redistricting plan…”

As proof of the incumbent protection, both the party and the coalition said that the new districts don’t realistically pit any incumbents against each other and retain about 62 percent of the same districts for incumbents who are not term-limited out of office.

The NAACP pointed to the Jacksonville-based District 9 and the Broward-based District 31 and said they appear to diminish black voting strength. It said the Senate amps don’t provide enough information about “racially polarized voting” in the questionable regions of the state “Without such evidence, approving these districts is simply gambling on the future ability of minority voters to participate in the political process.”

“Yet again, the Senate cannibalized the districts of term-limited incumbents so as to boost the performance of the surrounding non-term-limited incumbents,’’ the coalition wrote.

They claim the new maps violate the requirement that districts are compact, unless they are drawn to protect minority voting rights. And they argue that they fail to use existing political and geographic boundaries.

The opponents all point to the Senate’s proposed District 8, an open seat that straddles south Volusia County and stretches west into Marion County, alleging it was designed to split the minority voting blocks of Daytona Beach and dilute minority representation of those communities. Neighboring District 6 is held by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher.

“In arbitrarily choosing a border between Districts 6 and 8 that appears to follow a minor roadway for part of the way and no discernible boundary for other parts of the way, the Legislature splits Daytona Beach right down the middle, putting just under half in District 6 and just over half in District 8,’’ the coalition wrote.

The Democrats also target the proposed District 32 now held by Sen. Joe Negron, which would stretch from northern Palm Beach County up the coast to Indian River County for no apparent reason.

The party also alleges that the Central Florida districts intended for Sen. Andy Gardiner and open the minority access also fail the compactness test and not that their alternative meets it without, they claim, hurting minority voting strength.

Finally, the Democrats blast the proposed District 39, a sprawling South Florida district that links Monroe to Hendry counties through the Everglades and is being sought by three Democrats.