They are not perfect, but the new state Senate districts approved by the Florida Supreme Court are a substantial improvement over both the existing districts and the Legislature's first attempt that was rejected by the court. Credit goes to Florida voters who amended the state Constitution in 2010 to change the redistricting rules, and to the court for defining those rules and forcing the state Senate to redraw the districts. The result should be more competitive districts and a Senate that better represents the state after the November elections.
The Senate map approved by the Supreme Court on Friday makes significant improvements to resolve the court's criticisms of the earlier version that was thrown out. A minority district based in the Jacksonville area is much more compact, and two districts in the Panhandle sensibly follow clear boundaries and Interstate 10. Lakeland now sits in one Senate district, and a Southwest Florida district the court described as an "upside-down alligator'' has been redrawn.
But even with the new redistricting rules established by passage of Amendments 5 and 6, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. For example, the Supreme Court credits the Senate for drawing a more compact District 26, which had covered parts of nine counties and stretched from Polk County to Martin County on the east coast. District 26 now covers parts of seven counties and more closely follows county lines. The court notes the new map also has a more compact District 24 that is entirely in eastern Hillsborough County and is represented by Sen. Ronda Storms.
But there are also negative consequences, and the losers in the new Senate map are residents in the Apollo Beach and Ruskin areas of southern Hillsborough County. These communities are currently represented by Storms, who knows the district well as a former Hillsborough County commissioner. But under the new maps, these 52,000 residents are lumped into Senate District 26, which cuts across nearly the width of the state. The seven-county district stretches from Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key in Manatee County to the ranchlands of Wauchula and Moore Haven in Glades County. What retirees from southern Hillsborough and the Manatee beaches have in common with farming communities in the uplands of Lake Okeechobee is anyone's guess.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente raises legitimate concern about the need to continue to refine the redistricting process. She notes that severe time constraints limit the ability of the Legislature and the Supreme Court to redraw districts that are challenged. She suggests that the creation of an independent commission to draw districts should be re-examined, and she notes the difficulty of having the court determine the intent of legislators drawing the districts. These are good observations, and they should be thoroughly discussed before the 2020 census and the next redistricting.
For now, the new congressional and legislative districts for the 2012 elections appear to be set. The Florida Supreme Court has signed off on the legislative districts. The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday also precleared both the congressional and legislative maps under the Voting Rights Act, finding no concerns in Hillsborough and four other counties with a history of voter discrimination. That is a credit to the Legislature, and it enables candidates and voters to begin focusing on the coming elections.