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Voting-Rights Groups Slam Proposed South Florida District

Miami Herald Staff
Miami-Dade elections workers test ballot machines in preparation for early voting in November 2014.

A pair of voting-rights groups whose lawsuit led to the state's current congressional districts being struck down by the Florida Supreme Court say that a new proposal appears to be tilted to favor a Republican congressman in South Florida.

In a letter to state House and Senate leaders, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida said a "base map" crafted by legislative staff members and currently working its way through a special session largely follows the Supreme Court's ruling. The court last month found that current districts violated the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved by Florida voters in 2010.

But League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman and Common Cause Chairman Peter Butzin said the base map appears to try to protect Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo after the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to unite the city of Homestead in one district. That shift would add thousands of African-American voters to Curbelo's swing district.

Because all congressional districts must have almost precisely the same population, map drawers then had to shift some population out of Curbelo's seat and into the district of Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Goodman and Butzin said the areas in Miami-Dade County that were moved --- known as Richmond Heights, Palmetto Estates, and West Perrine --- were chosen because they were African-American and likely to vote for a Democratic candidate.

"While complying with the letter of the court's opinion by keeping Homestead whole, this move accomplished the same partisan result," Goodman and Butzin wrote. "By its decisions, the Legislature increased the chances that a Republican could win in (Curbelo's district). ... The partisan effect is to create a 'wash' or an alternative means to perpetuate and, in fact, increase the Republican advantage of the Homestead split."

The two groups focused on election results in 2008, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain carried the Curbelo district by 3.4 points, and 2010, when future GOP Gov. Rick Scott won it by almost 3.9 points. However, Democratic President Barack Obama carried the proposed district by almost 4.1 points in 2012.

The letter could serve as a basis for the two groups to fight the map in the courts once the Legislature finishes a special session aimed at complying with the Supreme Court opinion. Supreme Court justices will review the new congressional map once it is approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The offices of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, responded by questioning the motives of the organizations.

In an email, Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta said the League of Women Voters and Common Cause were invited to speak about any concerns they had with the map at meetings of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

"The Senate committee meets again on Monday, and would certainly welcome the attendance and testimony of the League of Women Voters/Common Cause," Betta wrote. "The League of Women Voters has maintained a presence at every court hearing and committee meeting dealing with redistricting, so it does appear curious that they were not willing to make and defend these statements in a public forum when presented the opportunity."

Crisafulli essentially accused the two groups of posturing.

"This is another example of a letter that was mass distributed before it even reached my office," he said in a prepared statement. "Typically, people who do that mean to make a political statement and aren't really sending a letter for a response."

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, put it more succinctly in a post to his Twitter page.

"I think LWV and CC just jumped the shark," he wrote.