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Round 2 on Senate election maps: Can new election districts avoid bias?

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida lawmakers reconvene today for a two-week special session to redraw the Senate maps, one question remains: Will they be able to stop themselves from protecting incumbents?

That question may be answered best by looking at one simple test: how the Senate numbers its districts.

Applying new redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the Senate's first proposed map last week on the grounds that it "was rife with indicators of improper intent" and included a district numbering scheme that "plainly favors certain incumbents."

Because of the once-a-decade reapportionment process, all 40 of the Senate districts will be up for re-election this year. Depending on how the numbering is handled, many senators could get an automatic advantage that gives them the opportunity to serve longer than the eight years prescribed by term limits.

In its 5-2 decision, the court established guidelines legislators should adhere to when drawing their districts and said that the House redistricting map appeared to comply with those guidelines. The Senate map, the court said, did not. The court said the Senate's map included eight districts that clearly violated the Florida Constitution's Fair Districts amendments and included a numbering scheme with a "built-in bias" that favored incumbents.

To fix the map, the House and Senate will convene in special session starting at 1 p.m. today, but it will be a one-sided exercise. The House leadership has decided to continue its "gentlemen's agreement" to allow the Senate to redraw its own lines. House members will arrive to check in, then most of them will turn around and head home as the Senate spends the next week working out its redistricting fix.

Unlike the House, where 120 members each serve two-year terms, the Senate's job is admittedly more complicated. For starters, the Florida Constitution requires that senators serve four-year terms and that their terms be staggered. So normally only half of the Senate seats are up in an election year. In a redistricting year like 2012, however, everyone runs for election — meaning half of the senators get only a two-year term.

When it recently drew its maps, the Senate decided that whoever wins in even-numbered districts would get a two-year term, while those winning in odd-numbered districts will be elected for four years.

Five senators — Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, Steve Oelrich, R-Alachua, and Jeremy Ring, D-Margate — would normally be scheduled to have their terms expire in 2014. But the map submitted to the court gave them odd-numbered districts which, if they are re-elected this year, would automatically give them the opportunity to serve until 2016 — for a total of 10 years in office, two more than allowed by term limits.

When the Senate drew its first map in November, it placed many incumbent senators in districts that expire in two years. But a month later it quietly changed the number scheme and gave nearly every returning incumbent — except for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater — a four-year term.

A coalition of voting groups flagged the switch, and the court noticed. In its 234-page ruling, the court concluded that "we can verify that at least the 16 senators that were previously eligible for eight years will now be eligible to serve a maximum of 10 years," and that three incumbents who were elected to fill a partial term and would have been originally eligible for nine years would now be eligible to serve for 11 years.

The arrangement "plainly favors certain incumbents by renumbering districts to allow them to serve longer than they would otherwise be eligible to serve." The court then invalidated the entire Senate plan.

How does the Senate fix its maps?

Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith says the answer is easy: Give four-year terms to the 11 open Senate seats and divide the remaining 29 districts in two. Half of them — either 14 or 15 — would get four-year terms, and thus the opportunity to serve a maximum of 10 years, and the remainder will receive two-year terms. Gaetz told the Times/Herald on Tuesday that he is considering all options for revamping the numbering scheme. He believes the Senate is required to remedy only the eight districts targeted by the court — including a district now held by Fort Lauderdale Sens. Chris Smith, a Democrat, and Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican.

"It's at least my intention that we conform the map to the ruling of the court, and that will probably necessitate some marginal changes to some contiguous districts,'' Gaetz said. "But it is certainly not my intention to make changes to districts that were deemed by the court to be valid."

Smith, however, calls the court ruling an "historic rejection" and believes "an entire redrawing of the Senate map is necessary.'' He warned that if the Senate doesn't get it right this time, the law requires the Supreme Court to do the maps itself.

"Contrary to what Sen. Gaetz suggests, the score is not 32 to 8,'' Smith told reporters on a call Tuesday. "The score is zero to one. If the Senate doesn't get it right this time, the score will be zero and two. Frankly, the Senate will not get a third shot in writing a map."

How a simple number makes a big difference

The once-in-a-decade redistricting process requires elections in all 40 state Senate districts this year. Winners in districts with odd numbers will be elected to a two-year term while winners in even-numbered districts will be elected for four years. The difference is to stagger elections in 2016, 2018 and 2020. But as a result, the simple number of a Senate district is important. It means senators could serve 10 years in office instead of eight. How can that be? The Florida Constitution prohibits state lawmakers from running for re-election after eight consecutive years in office, which means senators who have served for six years can run for an additional term.

The Florida Supreme Court was critical of the Senate's plan to renumber districts in a ruling last week declaring the Senate maps invalid. Here are two of the changes proposed in the Senate map, which the court rejected.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico

Elected to represent District 10 in 2006, re-elected in 2010

If her district stays even-numbered, Storms could run for a two-year term in 2012. She would be term-limited out of office in 2014.

If her district becomes odd-numbered — as the Senate proposed — Storms could run for a four-year term in 2012, staying in office an extra two years until 2016.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando

Elected to represent District 9 in 2008

If his district remained odd-numbered, Gardiner would run for a four-year term in 2012 and serve until 2016, when he would be term-limited.

If his district becomes even-numbered — as the Senate proposed — Gardiner would run for a two-year term in 2012. He then could run for a full four-year term in 2014, serving until 2018.

Round 2 on Senate election maps: Can new election districts avoid bias? 03/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 11:23am]
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