TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A Senate panel told staffers on Tuesday to first redraw existing minority districts in northeast and central Florida before filling in the rest of the congressional and legislative maps in those areas.
The amendments, one each for congressional and legislative redistricting, say the ability of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process cannot be abridged, nor can their ability to elect representatives of their choice be diminished.
“We must as a number one goal meet our obligation _ our constitutional obligation _ to not diminish'' minority voting rights, said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland.
The amendments, as well, bar lawmakers from favoring incumbents and political parties. Simmons said the maps will automatically conform to those directives if lawmakers just follow the other requirements in the amendments.
Besides minority rights, the amendments also require districts to be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries when feasible.
The committee two weeks ago agreed to cross political boundaries, though, when redrawing districts in the Florida Panhandle. That would follow the existing pattern of separating mostly urban coastal areas on the south from more rural sections to the north although it means splitting several counties in half.
When the panel next meets in two weeks it'll focus on southern Florida.
The directive for northeast and central Florida will affect several minority legislative districts as well as the long, narrow and winding 3rd Congressional District that meanders from Jacksonville to Orlando. The seat is held by one of Florida's three black members of Congress, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
The district's voting age population is 49.9 percent black. That figure may drop when the district is redrawn because it's under-populated and must add 40,000 more residents.
Brown, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and the Florida House have challenged the legality of the congressional amendment. A federal judge rejected their argument that it actually would diminish minority representation, but the ruling is on appeal.
Florida currently has 25 congressional districts and will add two more due to population growth. Hispanic groups have urged lawmakers to put one of the new districts in the Orlando area. They have proposed a district that would have a 43.4 percent Hispanic voting age population.
The committee has not yet made a decision, but Sen. Alan Hays was worried because census figures include all residents regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens.
“I just don't think that it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow,'' said the Umatilla Republican.
Committee staff director John Guthrie said annual surveys are taken of small numbers of people to estimate the non-citizen population but trying to apply those figures to census data causes statistical problems.
Another factor is that a large number of Hispanics in central Florida are citizens because they are from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory