TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Redistricting and a pair of state constitutional amendments designed to remove gerrymandering contributed to more competitive legislative and congressional races as well as Democratic gains this year in Florida.
Democrats tentatively picked up four congressional seats depending on a trailing Republican's court challenge in a close South Florida race. They also gained two state Senate seats and at least four in the House.
They could pick up a fifth state House seat in central Florida after a recount. The GOP, though, still maintained comfortable majorities in both legislative chambers and Florida's congressional delegation.
The two Fair Districts amendments, which voters passed in 2010 through a citizen initiative, prohibit lawmakers from intentionally favoring incumbents or political parties when they redraw the three maps every 10 years.
Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who chaired the House Redistricting Committee, said it was obvious the amendments, one each for congressional and legislative redistricting, had an effect.
"We knew we were making a very competitive map," Weatherford said. "I'm not happy about the fact it cost us seats, but it was the right thing to do."
Without the amendments, would lawmakers have done the wrong thing?
"That's an interesting hypothetical," Weatherford said without offering an answer.
Fair Districts backers were afraid Republicans would have drawn maps blatantly favorable to themselves, which the party in power historically has done.
The redrawn maps also must protect the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice and draw compact districts with lines following city and county or natural boundaries whenever possible.
"The bottom line is we're not there yet, but what we've seen already is many more Floridians now have real competitive races with much closer results, and that means there is much greater accountability in our government," said Deirdre Macnab, state president of the League of Women Voters.
The league is part of the Fair Districts coalition and among the plaintiffs in three pending lawsuits challenging the congressional and Senate maps.
Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chaired his chamber's Reapportionment Committee, acknowledged redistricting gave Democrats a better chance to win more seats, but he said they didn't take full advantage of that opportunity. Republicans still have a 26-14 advantage even with the two additional Democratic senators. Gaetz said Democrats had a voter registration edge in five more districts but still lost those races.
"You can win redistricting fights on the floor of the Legislature and in court, but you have to win elections at the ballot box," Gaetz said. "I think President (Barack) Obama was the rising tide that lifted a few Democratic candidates' boats."
Obama, though, was on the ballot four years ago and had no similar effect on legislative races as Democrats picked up just one seat in the House and none in the Senate.
Unlike Gaetz, Weatherford credited Democratic gains largely to redistricting.
"Exhibit A is look at the numbers, look at the outcome," Weatherford said. He noted that House District 29 had been considered safe for Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican who had been in line to succeed him as speaker in two years.
"It's looking pretty competitive now," Weatherford said.
It's going to take a recount to determine if Dorworth will be re-elected or unseated by Democrat Mike Clelland, who had a 123-vote lead after the final ballots were counted Thursday.
Competitive races are healthy because they favor more moderate, less partisan candidates and make politicians more responsive to their constituents, Macnab said.
"When you have like the wild world of wrestling - prearranged victories with no competition - that means elected officials are no longer paying attention to the needs of the citizens," she said. "They're paying attention to special interests in Tallahassee."
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