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Profile: Fair Districts Now
Fair Districts Now was a participant or observer in the following events:
A heated battle is brewing in Florida over state constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, which if voted into effect in November, would create stricter rules for Florida legislators to follow while redrawing state districts. Proponents say that Florida’s electoral districts are gerrymandered to create a few districts “packed” with African-American voters, and large numbers of districts dominated by white voters. As a result, the white voters, who tend to vote Republican, are able to vote in majorities of Republican lawmakers to the Florida legislature, and the US Congress, year after year. The amendments would ban the practice of drawing political districts to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Amendment 5 pertains to legislative districts, while Amendment 6 deals with congressional districts. The political action committee (PAC) Protect Your Vote (PYV) is one of the most powerful and well-financed groups opposing the new amendments; the amendments are being pushed by groups such as Fair Districts Now, which proposed the amendments and secured enough backing for them to get them on November’s ballots. PYV, which portrays itself as nonpartisan, argues that Amendments 5 and 6 would make redistricting a long, expensive process and would in the long run result in a decrease in minority representation in Congress and the Florida legislature. However, an investigation by the Florida Independent turns up information that may call PYV’s motives into question. The head of the group is former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Republican who left the position after state laws governing retirement changed. Browning retired before the new laws could take effect, that would have prevented him from retiring and then returning to his old job and essentially drawing two salaries at once. Browning was a strong advocate for the controversial 2005 Voter Registration Verification Law, the so-called “No Match, No Vote” law that forced new voters to submit identifying numbers to the state before they are allowed to vote (see September 17, 2007). The law effectively disenfranchised almost 8,000 voters, the majority of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics, and over three-quarters of whom were registered Democrats. PYV’s honorary chairman is Representative Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville), believed by critics to be against the amendments “solely to keep the large majority she enjoys in her district in order to keep her seat safe from challengers,” according to a report by Sunshine State News. Critics say Brown gives PYV a veneer of bipartisanship, but the organization is funded almost entirely by Republican donors and the steering committee is made up of three Democrats and 12 Republicans. Two-thirds of the organization’s funding—some $1.2 million—comes from the Florida Republican Party. The listed address of the organization, in Tampa, is an accounting firm, Robert Watkins & Company; Robert Watkins’s wife Nancy Watkins is a veteran Republican political operative. [Florida Independent, 10/6/2010; Florida Independent, 10/22/2010]
Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) withdraws a request to have the federal government approve two new Florida redistricting amendments. Under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989), the Justice Department (DOJ) must approve any redistricting changes made by Florida to make sure they do not diminish minority voting access. Amendments 5 and 6 were approved by 63 percent of Florida voters in November 2010, the same election that awarded Scott the governorship. The amendments impose new standards for legislators to follow for redistricting in 2012. Then-acting Secretary of State Dawn Roberts submitted the new standards to the DOJ for approval. Scott does not explain his withdrawal, but media reports speculate that he is working with Florida Republicans, who have challenged the new amendments in court. Scott replaced Roberts with former Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the head of Protect Your Vote, an organization which led the opposition to Amendments 5 and 6. Scott only says: “One of the things that we’re looking at is the amendments that were passed, how they’re going to be implemented. We want to make sure that with regard to redistricting, it’s fair, it’s the right way of doing it. So it’s something I’m clearly focused on.” Of Browning, he says, “My agents will do everything we can to make sure it’s fairly done.” The Florida Department of State denies any involvement by Browning in the decision to withdraw the request. Scott’s spokesman Brian Hughes says, “This withdrawal in no way impedes the process of redrawing Florida’s legislative and Congressional districts.” Florida Democrats say Scott is attempting to delay or block implementation of the amendments. Fair Districts Now, the organization that proposed the amendments, issues a statement accusing Scott of trying to subvert the will of the people. It says: “Within its first days in power, the new administration of Governor Rick Scott, through its Department of State, took extraordinary steps to thwart the will of the overwhelming majority of Florida voters who voted for redistricting reform in Florida. On, November 2, 63 percent of Florida voters amended the Florida Constitution to include new non-partisan redistricting standards. When new laws affect voting as these do, the Voting Rights Act requires that the standards be reviewed and ‘pre-cleared’ by the Justice Department (DOJ). It is the duty of the state to request DOJ pre-clearance. Governor Crist ordered that a formal request for pre-clearance be filed. The Florida secretary of state’s office filed that request on December 10, 2010. On January 7, 2011, as one of its first acts, the new administration of Governor Rick Scott, through its Department of State, in an apparent attempt to thwart the will of the voters, wrote to DOJ withdrawing the amendments from review.” Fair Districts Now may sue Florida to have the new standards reviewed by the DOJ. Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich says Scott should follow the “will of the voters,” and adds: “The governor got elected with 48 percent and he calls that a mandate. I think that the amendment passing with 63 percent is definitely a mandate.” NAACP board member Leon Russell, who supports the two amendments, says Scott is abusing his power “to prevent implementation of these needed reforms.” Regardless of what is and is not done, the redistricting plans will have to receive “pre-clearance” under the VRA before being implemented. Scott does not inform the media of his withdrawal, and reporters do not learn of it until almost the end of January. Scott makes the withdrawal three days after being sworn in as governor. [Miami Herald, 1/25/2011; The Ledger, 1/25/2011; Florida Independent, 1/25/2011]
Entity Tags: Leon Russell, Dawn Roberts, Charles Joseph (“Charlie”) Crist, Jr, Brian Hughes, Fair Districts Now, Kurt Browning, Protect Your Vote, Rick Scott, US Department of Justice, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nan Rich, Florida Department of State
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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