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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Most likely, you voted for this legal brawl

Regarding the big, fat legal fuss over design of Florida’s congressional districts wrapping up this week in Tallahassee, the first thing you need to know is this: The moment voters approved the so-called “Fair Districts” amendments in 2010, lawsuits and expensive courtroom brawls became inevitable.

It’s not even like voters weren’t warned. As head of “Protect Your Vote,” the right-leaning opposition group, Kurt Browning — the two-time secretary of state and current Pasco County schools superintendent — forecast endless litigation as a direct and unavoidable result of the amendments’ adoption.

Not that folks who were paying attention couldn’t have figured it out for themselves. The amendments were — are — like suspension bridges, marvels of architectural tension. Districts couldn’t be drawn to favor incumbents or political parties, but they couldn’t disfavor them, either. They had to respect city limits, county lines and geographical boundaries while remaining compact and contiguous and preserving communities of racial or “language” minorities.

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What Fair Districts Florida, the left-tilting group pushing the changes, had going for it was the best visual aid ever: A python-swallowing-a-pig of a congressional district with its head in Jacksonville and its tail in Orlando. What proponents failed to acknowledge was that the district often called the most gerrymandered in the country wasn’t going anywhere. It was among those carved out in 1996 under scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court to promote the election of a black representative to the House of Representatives, thereby maintaining Florida’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

Nonetheless, this lightning rod district — a symbol of what is worst and best about our attempts to convene a Congress that resembles America, and to which Jacksonville Democrat Corrine Brown has held title since 1992 — forms the root of this preordained fight. Did legislators intend to disenfranchise voters with a late map change that boosted the black population in Brown’s district to 52 percent from 48 percent? Or were they simply leaning into the spirit of the Voting Rights Act?

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Opponents complain by drawing more likely Democratic voters into Brown’s district, Republicans in charge of reapportionment made the adjacent district more GOP friendly in violation of the no-favoritism provision. The claim has created fascinating bedfellows. Monday, Brown and representatives of the NAACP — whose support for Fair Districts Florida was early and robust — defended the work of House Speaker Will Weatherford, of Wesley Chapel, and, from Destin, state Senate President Don Gaetz.

Otherwise, plaintiffs have attempted to get traction on the notion that the process was appreciatively less than above board and open to public review, noting, especially, the similarity of the final congressional map to one drawn by a Republican Party of Florida staffer.

In other words, those who came out on the short end of the stick are shocked — shocked! — that politicking was involved in a political exercise, not to mention that in the neighborhood of $2 million of your tax dollars have been spent defending it. After all, how can anybody reconcile Democrats’ clear edge in voter registration with their deficits in the Legislature and Congress? Beats me. Let’s ask the four Republicans elected to the governor’s cabinet.

Ultimately, how the Legislature’s Republican leadership arrived at their map designs, while intriguing, is a legal sideshow. The merits of the finished product — whether it achieves its assorted federal and state constitutional mandates — seems far more material than how the meat traveled through the grinder.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis will decide what’s what by the end of this month. Then comes the appeal, and more billable hours.

Makes you cringe? Yeah, tough. Remember: It was foreordained. And chances are, you voted for it.

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