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Legislature seeks federal redistricting review even without a final map

The Florida Legislature’s legal team has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to begin the process of reviewing its legislative maps for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, even before the Florida Supreme Court signs off on a final product.

In a March 30 letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, lawyers for the House, Senate and attorney general asked the federal government to expedite its a pre-clearance of the maps so that candidates will know the district boundaries when they are required to qualify during the week the June 4. Download Preclearance_Senate

Under the Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, Florida must submit its legislative and congressional maps for approval, or pre-clearance, because five counties – Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe – have a history of discrimination against racial or language minorities.

The Legislature passed the map on March 27 and Attorney General Pam Bondi has until April 11 to ask the state's high court to conduct its required review. The court rejected the first Senate map and will have 30 days after Bondi sends it the plan a second time to decide if the map addresses the court’s concerns.

As of Monday, Bondi had not asked the Florida court to review the maps, raising the question of whether federal officials will pay attention to them without the state court finishing its job. 

The clock is ticking. Bondi has until April 11 to submit the redrawn Senate map back to the court. Once complete, the Department of Justice has 60 days to do its pre-clearance review. And candidates have until the week of June 4 to decide which of the redrawn districts they will choose. 

The legislature assumes the Florida Supreme Court is going to approve its plan, telling the feds, their review “merely provides up-or-down approval of the redistricting plan.”

It acknowledges there is one more option – a big one – the court can redraw the map a third time if it determines the map remain unconstitutional. 

The legislature’s filing makes no mention, however, of another simmering issue relating to the federal Voting Rights Act: the absence of a fourth Hispanic district in Miami Dade. That dispute provoked sidebar dust-up between Miami Sens. Gwen Margolis, a Democrat, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican, during the special session in redistricting two weeks ago. 

During the special session, Diaz de la Portilla proposed an alternative map that would have drawn a fourth Hispanic-access seat in Miami Dade County that he said addressed “potential inequities” as it relates to Hispanic voters. The map would have converted the seat now held by Margolis into an Hispanic majority district with 66 percent Hispanic voting age population, compared to the 50.4 percent in the Senate map. 

“I believe there is an opportunity to create an additional Hispanic seat in South Florida,’’ he told the Senate Redistricting Committee. “I believe the numbers justify it. They have been there for a while.”

He said that the new Fair District standards requires that racial and language minorities are allowed to select candidates of their choice and the Senate map fails that test.

During a break in the meeting, Margolis then accused Diaz de la Portilla of subjective application of the new standards. She noted that when the Senate proposed its first map, Diaz de la Portilla made no attempt to create a fourth Hispanic district but only pushed for the change after Miguel’s brother, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican, filed to run in the Democrat-dominated district Margolis now holds. 

Margolis, who returned to the Senate in 2010 after have served from 1980-92 and again in 2002-2008, suggested that in Miami Dade, Anglos should be considered a minority. 

“This amendment, if it makes a fourth seat in Dade County a protected seat, disenfranchises every Anglo,” she told reporters.  “There will never be an Anglo member of the Florida Senate from Dade County if this amendment passes.”

Diaz de la Portilla returned fire, portraying Margolis as a career politician “who wants to cling to power at all costs.’’

“Language minorities and racial majorities are what they are,’’ he told reporters. “You don’t have an 'Anglo' [district] for lack of a better term. Anglos are not recognized as minorities under federal law and to suggest so is kind of absurd.”

Margolis disagreed that Cubans should be considered a language minority.

“The Cubans came in 1960. Believe me, they can speak English,” Margolis said. “They prefer not to, but they do speak English. They went to school in Miami-Dade, their children go to school in Miami-Dade, they’re English-speaking people.”

Diaz de la Portilla accused Margolis of showing “a lack of sensitivity and understanding” of Cuban-Americans “which again is a further argument for change.”

He withdrew his proposed amendment but suggested it will be up to the court to draw the fourth Hispanic seat. That claim is not likley to emerge during the federal pre-clearance review, however. If it emerges it would have to come in the form of a lawsuit alleging violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which applies to all Florida counties. Section 2 prohibits legislators from enacting voting laws that result in diminishing the voting rights of racial or language minorities. 

As for the House and Senate maps before the justsice department, lawyers argued that the federal government should “pre-clear” them even without waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to act.

 “There cannot be any serious issue concerning discriminatory purpose in the covered counties,’’ the lawyers for Republicans wrote. “The minority districts there largely followed the districts recommended by ncivil-rights groups and materially preserved the ability of minority voters in those counties to elect their preferred candidates.”

The Legislators argue that Senate District 19, the district now held predominantly by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, could elect a minority candidate of their choice even though there are fewer blacks of voting age and more Hispanics than the current map. 

The new District 39, currently held primarily by Sen. Larcenia Bullard, who is retiring because of term limits goes from black voting age population of 29 percent to 35.3 percent and Hispanic voting age population from 43 percent to 39.7 percent.