Legal battle over state Senate districts coming to an end
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Leaders of Florida’s Republican-controlled state Senate have decided they won’t fight a judge’s ruling that could signal the end of GOP domination in the Legislature.
Senate leaders announced Wednesday that they will accept a new map for Florida’s 40 state senate districts approved last month by a circuit judge. Judge George Reynolds, in a widely anticipated ruling, rejected boundaries for Senate districts drawn by a top Republican and instead signed off on a map crafted by voting rights groups.
The map chosen by Reynolds is split nearly evenly between GOP and Democratic-leaning districts. In 2012, President Barack Obama won a majority of votes in 21 of the 40 districts approved by the judge. Because the map was redrawn, all 40 senate seats will be up in a presidential election year, when there is usually higher turnout.
After conferring with top senators and legal staff, Senate President Andy Gardiner decided to accept the ruling. It means that the new map will be used by election officials for this year’s elections.
Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican leading Senate redistricting efforts, said he advised Gardiner against an appeal because it would not be “prudent.” He noted that previous rulings have gone against legislators. An appeal also likely would have rankled election officials, who had warned they needed new boundaries by March to avoid disruption to the fall elections.
“I think everybody is ready to pivot to the other side of the process,” Galvano said, referring to the campaigns.
Voters in 2010 approved the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments that require compact political districts that aren’t drawn to benefit parties or incumbents. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued in 2012 over maps drawn for both Congress and the state Senate.
The three-year battle over the congressional districts resulted in the state Supreme Court siding earlier this year with the groups and ordering a new congressional map, a ruling that could result in the ouster of several incumbents in 2016.
A trial on the Senate maps was scheduled for September, but the Senate acknowledged in court filings that it had violated he voter-approved standards and settled the case. Lawmakers held a special session in November to try to draw up a new map but the House and Senate were unable to agree. With no new map approved by the Legislature, the Senate asked Reynolds to sign off on the proposal approved by Galvano.
David King, the attorney for the voting rights groups, said his clients are “thrilled to be able to say that the voters’ wishes have been granted.”
“In 2016 Floridians will for the first time have the opportunity to vote in legally drawn Senate districts that fully comply with the Fair Districts amendments,” King said in a statement.
The Senate has been under GOP control since the 1994 elections. Republicans currently hold a 26-14 margin.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, the incoming leader of Senate Democrats, said it would require the “moon, sun and stars” aligning for Democrats to win back the state Senate. He said that a key component will be whether or not Democrats – who usually do not raise as much money as Florida Republicans – will be able to secure enough campaign donations to be competitive.
But Braynon said the new map could bring national attention – and added campaign donations – to legislative campaigns in Florida.
“It drums up national attention and it drums up attention that this chamber will be moving in a different direction,” Braynon said.