Both the House and Senate's redistricting committees signed off on an identical new district map Friday in response to a judge's ruling that the Legislature in 2012 improperly drew them to favor Republicans.
But the action came over the objections of House Democrats who tried unsuccessfully to push their own map which would have further reduced the number of African-Americans packed into the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
Brown's seat has been at the center of Florida's congressional fight for the last two years, a phenomenon which continued Friday as supporters testified in both House and Senate committees against any effort to dismantle her district -- first drawn by a federal judge in the 1990s to held an African-American get elected to Congress.
For years, Florida lawmakers have haggled over how many black voting-age people would be sufficient to appease both federal court-law protecting minority districts and Florida's 2010 anti-gerrymandering constitutional reforms. While the Legislature initially boosted Brown's district from 48 percent to over 50 percent, Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said that decision couldn't be justified because Brown had never needed so many black voters to get elected before.
The legislative re-write released Thursday would slightly modify the Jacksonville-to-Orlando seat by removing an "appendage" which reached into Sanford -- and drops the black voting-age population back to 47.1 percent.
Brown's seat has also divided traditional allies, with the League of Women Voters of Florida pushing a larger break-up on the seat and the NAACP opposing changes.
The legislature's re-draft "packs an excessive number of African Americans into a district marked by hooks, tentacles and appendages as it snakes through and splits every county from Jacksonville down to Orlando," LWV President Deirdre Macnab said in a statement. "By packing minorities into such a north-south district, [ the re-worked Brown district] destroys the ability to create an additional district with significant minority voting strength in Central Florida."
But a handful of Brown's supporters said the opposite -- that she had successfully brought projects home to her district and deserved to stay put.
"Black voters are not just numbers on a map," Tallahassee NAACP President Dale Landry told the House panel.
House Democrats also tried unsuccessfully to place witnesses under oath Friday, and voted against the Republican-drafted congressional fix -- which was publicly released less than 24 hours earlier.
"This gets to the heart of the concern of some in the state when it comes to the drawing of these maps," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. "We've all had a limited time to review them."
Lawmakers are being forced to re-draw the plan before a judge this summer ruled two of Florida's current 27 congressional districts were drawn to unfairly favor Republicans -- a violation of the 2010 constitutional reforms called "Fair Districts." Florida's congressional delegation currently has 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Although the GOP-drafted replacement map headed for final votes on Monday would shift the lines of seven congressional seats in 23 counties, an Orlando Sentinel analysis of political performance data suggests none of the seven seats would be likely to flip parties.
The two seats Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found were drawn with intentional partisan bias would barely budge in terms of partisan performance.
Brown's District 5 seat goes from 70.9 percent voting for President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 to 68.7 percent.
U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster's District 10 goes from 45.7 percent voting for Obama in 2012 to 47.1 percent.
Of the seven congressional districts getting changed, three become slightly less -- 2 percent or under -- competitive for Democrats. Four become slightly more competitive -- but not much.
For instance, by scooping up the sliver of Orlando, the District 9 seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson would shift from 61.8 percent for Obama in 2012 to 59.8 percent.
Senate Redistricting Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called it a "minimalist approach," although he cautioned he had no idea how the new districts would perform for candidates.
"I don't know if political interests may be happy or sad about these districts and how they will impact elections to come," Galvano said. "I do know ... we have answered the call."
By comparison, the Democrat alternative authored by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, would only change three districts -- CDs 5, 9 and 10 -- and impact Orange, Seminole and Lake counties.
But it would have made a more dramatic change to Brown's seat in voter performance. Voter support for Obama would decrease by 7.4 percent (70.9 percent support down to 63.5 percent), although it would still remain heavily Democratic-leaning (67 percent would have voted for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012; 59 percent for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink in 2010).
"Judge Lewis said that District 5 had been packed and was unconstitutional," said Soto, who plans to offer his alternative map on the Senate floor next week.
The seats held by Webster and Grayson would both shift Democratic by 2.5 percentage-points, using the 2012 presidential turnout. But that wouldn't be enough to make either seat competitive.