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Florida lawmakers approve changes to congressional districts

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida legislature approved new U.S. congressional districts on Monday a month after a judge found the state's 2012 redistricting map was unconstitutional, and Democrats complained that they were once again ignored by ruling Republicans.

The Senate voted 25-17 for the revised plan and the House passed it barely an hour later in a 71-38 vote, both chambers voting along party lines.

“A lion does not lose sleep over what a sheep thinks,” Representative Irv Slosberg, a Delray Beach Democrat, complained during closing arguments over the bill.

A special legislative session to revise Florida’s congressional districts was required after a judge ruled last month that the Republican-controlled body had improperly rigged the maps to protect the party's House of Representatives majority in Washington.

Circuit judge Terry Lewis invalidated two of the state's 27 congressional districts in north and central Florida, saying Republican leaders in 2012 illegally colluded with campaign consultants to protect their party and pack Democrat voters - including blacks - into as few districts as possible.

He set a deadline for lawmakers to provide new maps by the end of the week and plans to hear arguments on Aug. 20 about whether to delay elections in the affected districts.

A 2010 “Fair Districts Florida” constitutional amendment forbids legislators to favor political parties or incumbents in drawing district boundaries, but Lewis ruled that the Republican leadership “made a mockery” of the anti-gerrymandering rules.

Although Democrats outnumber Republicans among voters statewide, there are 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats in Florida’s delegation to the U.S. House.

Without conceding that they cheated two years ago, Republican legislative leaders said the new map protects black and Hispanic voting rights better than the earlier edition.

A Democratic-backed alternative map that sought to reduce the concentration of black voters in one north Florida district was rejected along party lines.

House Redistricting Chairman Richard Corcoran denied that the new plan was “a Republican map” that still protects the party’s incumbents in Washington.

“This is a map that complies with the law,” said Corcoran. “The process was completely fair.”

The revised plan alters lines of seven congressional districts. Its focus is the oddly shaped tract of Representative Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, and Republican Representative Daniel Webster of Winter Garden in central Florida.

(Additonal reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by David Adams, G Crosse and Mohammad Zargham)

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