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Updated: 07/16/2014 08:00:03AM

Redistricting flap a black eye for state GOP

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A judge has ruled that Florida Republicans went to great extremes according to redraw district voting maps in favor of their candidates.

Gerrymandering is as old as elections. Both Democrats and Republicans have used the tactic of reworking voting districts to favor their candidates for as long as anyone can remember.

But, the behind-the-scenes tactics Florida Republicans used to skirt a new state law and realign voting districts border on criminal.

Last week, after a 13-day trial, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled that two of the state’s 27 districts were invalid — drawn up solely through the efforts of GOP legislators and the Republican party to give their candidates an edge. He ordered the district redrawn — a procedure that likely will be postponed while Republicans appeal the decision

In 2010, the League of Women Voters and other advocacy groups helped pass the Fair Districts Amendment which called for more geographically compact electoral districts. It was passed by voters and became a constitutional amendment we hoped would restrict, if not altogether stop, playing with state maps to favor candidates.

The practice of gerrymandering is obvious in a state that was twice carried by President Barack Obama and which has 459,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Despite that, Florida’s congressional delegation has only 10 Democrats out of 27 House seats.

The redrawn maps include the districts, of Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat and District 10, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster. Brown’s district, which looks like a snake on a map, is packed with minority neighborhoods that normally might be in Webster’s district. While Brown appears to not need those extra minority voters to win election, those same voters might endanger Brown’s candidacy.

The judge ruled that Republican legislators collaborated with political consultants to draw these maps and protect GOP incumbents.

Judge Lewis commented that the process used by Republicans “made a mockery of the Legislature’s transparent and open process of redistricting,” and went to “great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”

Two key operatives in the clandestine redistricting process were Kirk Pepper, an aide to former House Speaker Dean Cannon, and Republican Governors’ Association attorney and redistricting expert Benjamin Ginsberg.

Evidence in the trial showed that Pepper was involved in forwarding draft maps to GOP operative Mark Reichelderfer. Ginsberg, meanwhile, is a master at redrawing maps to create safe districts for Republicans — an art he has practice for years.

Republicans have argued that the configuration of districts, especially that of Rep. Brown, were done so to adhere to the Voting Rights Act, designed to assure the rights of minority voters. Judge Lewis discounted that argument by saying the changes to District 10 “benefited the incumbent Rep. Webster” and violated the Fair District amendment.

All of this was carried out behind closed doors with no public access to the process.

Violations of the Fair District amendment and the state’s Sunshine laws are sprinkled throughout the evidence that came to light during the trial.

While gerrymandering is so common it has become almost an accepted practice of the party in power, we believe ignoring the law and the blatant manipulation of the process to avoid scrutiny rise to an all-time low for a political party in Florida.

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