Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos yesterday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to approve the two anti-gerrymandering amendments supported by Florida voters in last November’s election, appending a lengthy explanation of how they feel the so-called “Fair Districts” amendments should be interpreted.
The move comes two months after controversy erupted over Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to rescind former Gov. Charlie Crist’s application for Department of Justice approval. After news of Scott’s order became public, the League of Women Voters, the Florida NAACP, Democracia Ahora and others sued the governor, asking a court to force him to resubmit the amendments — approved by more than 60 percent of Florida voters last year — to the Department of Justice.
According to a legislature press release, Scott determined “earlier this month” that “the proper authority” to submit the amendments to the feds rests with either Attorney General Pam Bondi or the Florida legislature, prompting the latter to act.
In addition to the one-page letter seeking Department of Justice approval (a legal necessity created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965), Cannon and Haridopolos included an 11-page document outlining their interpretation of how they can implement the Fair Districts amendments while still preserving minority representation in the state legislature and Congress:
Properly interpreted, we do not believe that the Amendments create roadblocks to the preservation or enhancement of minority voting strength. To avoid retrogression in the position of racial minorities, the Amendments must be understood to preserve without change the Legislature‘s prior ability to construct effective minority districts. Moreover, the Voting Rights Provisions ensure that the Amendments in no way constrain the Legislature‘s discretion to preserve or enhance minority voting strength, and permit any practices or considerations that might be instrumental to that important purpose. In promoting minority voting strength, the Legislature may continue to employ whatever means were previously at its disposal.
The argument here seems to be that the legislature should be allowed the freedom to draw lines as it sees fit if it suits the purpose of preserving minority representation, regardless of whether the Fair Districts amendments require the lines to be drawn differently.
The Tampa Tribune‘s William March today documented criticism of Cannon and Haridopolos’ claims:
Gerald Hebert, an election law expert who has followed Florida’s reapportionment battles since 2002, said the legislators were wrong on their proposed interpretations.
“What they’re trying to do is get the Justice Department to approve their misinterpretations,” he said. “The Justice Department won’t do that — they’ll simply say they either approve or disapprove the amendments.”
Hebert said he intends to file comments with the Justice Department disagreeing with the Legislature’s submission. So does the FairDistricts committee that sponsored the petition drive and campaign for the amendments.
“The submission contains a number of statements that are clearly intended to undermine the intent of the FairDistricts Amendments,” said Dan Gelber, former state senator and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for attorney general, who is the committee’s lawyer.
Cannon has made the state House a party to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the amendments, and Haridopolos has opposed them in written comments.