Legislators would also be prevented from creating a district like Senate District 27, which is held by Dave Aronberg, who lives in Palm Beach County, with the district spanning 115 miles west to Fort Myers and covering five counties.
Instead, districts would “be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries,” according to the wording of the proposed amendments.
Such a configuration, some black leaders say, will prevent blacks from being elected to legislative and Congressional seats because the districts would not include a sufficient number of black voters, who would, presumably, vote for black candidates.
"If passed, Amendments 5 & 6 would turn back the clock to the days when African Americans watched from the sidelines,” said Brown, who is national chairwoman of Protect Your Vote, an organization established to oppose the amendments.
Ellen Freidin, chairwoman of Fair Districts Florida Campaign, the group proposing the amendments, said the measures would level the political playing field and allow voters a stronger say in who gets elected.
“Politicians have been using redistricting as a way to protect their own seats, making backroom deals and handpicking the voters that will most likely support them to be in their districts. Amendments 5 and 6 will stop this selfish practice, once and for all,” said Freidin, a Miami lawyer.
The Florida ACLU supports the amendments, which have been endorsed also by every major Florida newspaper, and points to Brown’s district as an example.
"Corrine Brown’s district is kind of notorious because it begins in Jacksonville and snakes through… parts of nine different counties — not all of them — and comes all the way down to the outskirts of Orlando,” Florida ACLU President Michael Pheneger said on a Tampa radio program discussing the issue. “Nobody would draw a district that way unless they had an ulterior purpose. And the ulterior purpose is either to exclude voters that they don’t want in their district or to include voters that they want in a district to ensure somebody’s election or reelection."
Redistricting comes into play every 10 years, following the Census. The current law requires that districts be equal in population and that they consist of neighboring territory. However, because a connecting strip a yard wide and miles long satisfies that requirement, constituents of some districts are unlikely to be actual neighbors.
Barbara Howard, Florida state chairwoman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), strongly opposes the amendments and questions why they are supported by the NAACP.
“Why would the Florida NAACP promote Amendments 5 & 6 when they know they would lose black districts?” Howard said.
Leon Russell, vice president of the NAACP national board of directors and chairman of the legislative committee of the Florida NAACP, has an answer. The amendments would actually protect the Voting Rights Act, Russell said.
The NAACP supports the legislation, he said, because, “There should be rules/standards in place that provide an opportunity to make the process fair in terms of offering all voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to the legislature and the Congress and create more balance within the political process, which would allow all citizens an opportunity to affect the development of Florida’s public policy.”
He added, “Most significantly, 5 & 6 would include the language from the Voting Rights Act requiring that the voting rights of minorities must be protected and, to the extent possible, that districts must be drawn that provide an opportunity for minorities to elect candidates of their choice to the legislature and to the Congress.“
Russell cited Brown as an example: “Corrine Brown right now has a 47 percent minority district. She doesn’t have a majority district. Yet she’s been elected for 17 years to her Congressional district. So these amendments would continue to protect that district.”
While Howard sees the amendments as a ploy to strip away Republican power, Fair District’s Freidin, sees it differently.
"The whole point here is to draw districts that make sense geographically and that are not rigged to accomplish a particular political result," Friedin said.
Supporters also say that the amendments would also help to ensure that incumbents face serious challengers. In the last six years, more than 420 elections have taken place for state senator and state representative and only three incumbents have been defeated.
Renee Michelle Harris may be reached at RMHarris15@Bellsouth.net.
Pictured: Corrine Brown