Local News

‘New’ District 17 boundaries still unknown

— The Florida Legislature approved new maps on Monday that will alter seven of the state’s congressional districts. However, the vote in the Republican controlled House and Senate was largely along partisan lines, just like the original maps in 2012.

It appears parts of Manatee, Oceola and Polk County were moved into or out of District 17, which includes Highlands County, but details were not available at press time.

Democrats complained the new map still doesn’t reflect that Florida is a battleground state with a divided electorate. The Sunshine State has 4.1 million registered Republicans, 4.6 million Democrats and 3 million independents or minor party members.

It’s also not certain if the revised map will change the makeup of Florida’s congressional delegation. Republicans currently hold a 17-10 edge. Also, since county election supervisors are still waiting for street-level maps showing exactly what the Legislature did, it isn’t certain whether District 17 will remain a Republican-heavy district.

“What we’ve done is really just window dressing,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. Democrats offered an alternate map that changed just three districts, but senators voted it down 25-12. Republicans contended that the Democratic map was unconstitutional because it lowered the number of black voters in Corrine Brown’s district. The federal Voting Rights Act won’t let states dilute the voting strength of minorities.

Legislators held a three-day special session to fix the congressional map after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled two districts were illegally drawn. Lewis gave legislators until Aug. 15 to draw a new map. The Senate passed the measure 25-12 on Monday with the House following, 71-38.

District 17, which is represented by Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, includes Highlands County. With one two-year exception, District 17 and its 2002-2012 predecessor, District 16, has voted exclusively for Republicans.

“I’ve been given three different numbers,” Manatee County Elections Supervisor Mike Bennett said Tuesday. A senator until 2012, he served on committees which drew the 2012 maps — the ones that were challenged and declared unconstitutional by Judge Lewis.

About 1,700 Manatee voters will move into District 17, Bennett thought on Tuesday. Deputy Supervisor of Elections T.J. Leiva said Polk County is also waiting for numbers.

Congressional District 17’s west, south, and east boundaries did not change, said Brian Mielke, Rep. Cary Pigman’s legislative aide. On the north end, District 17 picked up 1,077 people in Osceola County. However, since each of the 27 congressional districts must have the same population, District 17 lost 1,077 people somewhere along that north border in Polk County.

“However, I have not been able to discern exactly where the line changed,” Mielke said.

Since voters are moving from one congressional district to another, and Judge Lewis hasn’t ruled yet on Monday’s maps, Bennett isn’t certain how the Aug. 26 primary will be affected. Even with new districts in place, it’s not clear when they will be implemented.

Lewis must still decide whether to call a special election for later this year, and legislative leaders plan to oppose any effort to call one.

Voters in 2010 passed the Fair Districts amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering. A coalition of groups, including the League of Women Voters, contended that GOP consultants used a shadow process to draw districts that benefited Republicans.

The federal Voting Rights Act doesn’t make it that simple, Bennett said.

“Here’s the problem with redistricting and how difficult it is,” Bennett said. “A water balloon, if you squeeze, it’s got to pop out somewhere. You have to have the districts drawn where you can protect minority voters, so you have to gerrymander that district. We had to have a majority minority district, so you could get an African-American elected. And if you have to gerrymander one district, you have to gerrymander another. It gets extremely complicated.”