Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

PolitiFact Florida on redistricting claim: A record of incumbent vs. incumbent

Florida isn't alone in its push to cut gerrymandering out of the once-in-a-decade process that determines districts for elected officials.

Yet the "fair districts" reforms in Florida's Constitution are unique — more than is widely known. We at PolitiFact Florida realized this while checking out a claim from incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, who oversaw the House's redistricting effort.

"It's the first time in the nation this many members have been drawn into the same districts where it wasn't a court order," Weatherford told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald on March 27, 2012, speaking of the House map. (The Senate's maps are a different story.)

"From my understanding, this is the largest amount of incumbents that were pitted against each other based off the Legislature voluntarily doing that in the history in the United States," he added.

His assertion about the Legislature's unparalleled feat of forcing sitting House members to run against each other resonated with us. What a bold (and specific) claim!

Other states, like California and Arizona, have adopted independent commissions to handle redistricting instead of letting legislators draw the lines. In Florida, that power remains with lawmakers, who redrew the lines for the first time this year under orders from voters not to protect incumbents when crafting districts.

The truth behind his claim is more complicated than we thought it would be. A lot of that has to do with a lack of nationwide data, and the fact that the dust from Florida's redistricting battle isn't settled.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, told us the true test of Florida's "fair districts" experiment will be decided by the courts.

"Nonetheless, I think the idea behind it was rather path-breaking, definitely," she said.

• • •

Weatherford told us he learned about his claim from House redistricting committee staffers and attorneys. "There are other states that have a committee or a commission that does it for them," Weatherford said, "but as far as the Legislature doing it to themselves, we just couldn't find anything."

A little background first: Many states have considered varying approaches to redistricting over widespread concerns of gerrymandering and incumbency protection. Some states, including California and Arizona, adopted special commissions to tackle the process.

Florida went with "fair districts" requirements, which keep lawmakers at the wheel but say they can no longer draw federal or state districts to favor a political party or an incumbent, among other things. Voters approved the standards in 2010 over objections from legislators who said the requirements would be impossible to follow.

The new maps sent several members moving across town or modifying political ambitions to avoid matchups with colleagues.

In its mandatory review of the Legislature's plans, the Florida Supreme Court accepted the House plan and rejected the state Senate's, saying it failed to adhere to "fair districts." The Legislature's map for congressional districts and its second attempt at a state Senate map await separate judicial reviews beginning this week.

Another point of caution: Just because the House map hasn't been challenged doesn't mean it won't.

• • •

So how many members does the House map affect?

It's not so easy to nail down. A Times/Herald report pinpointed 35 member vs. member (and in a couple cases, member vs. member vs. member) races. It did not count incumbents facing term limits, since they can't run again anyway. But the Times/Herald relied on members' home addresses as listed on voter registration forms, which leaves open the possibility that some members' primary residences are in their new districts.

Other estimates are higher. The Florida Democratic Party put the count as high as 58 — roughly half the chamber — in a court filing. The Florida House said it found 40 incumbent pairings through various news sources, or one-third of House members.

• • •

We consulted the country's top redistricting experts, and none knew of a single source that tracks how many legislators had been drawn into the same district for different states after a redistricting cycle.

"It's a great project for a grad student somewhere," said Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School associate professor who keeps tabs on redistricting efforts at the All About Redistricting website.

As for Florida's rules, Levitt said, no other state forces the Legislature to draw boundaries with a prohibition on favoring incumbents embedded in its Constitution. Other states have these limits in their statutes, or as nonbinding guidelines, but lawmakers can easily override those, he said.

"Florida is the only one that lets its Legislature draw the lines that also has constitutional constraints against legislators helping themselves," he said.

A couple of experts advised us to compare Florida's results with those in Iowa and California.

Still, they cautioned, we weren't going to get an apples-to-apples comparison. No one does it quite like Florida, which may give Weatherford's claim more merit.

In Iowa, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency designs the maps and presents them to the Legislature for a vote. Lawmakers can approve or reject up to two maps from the agency and are allowed to amend a third map. They've never amended a map — "a restraint that's rare to find anywhere in elected politics," Levitt said.

The standards that staffers use to design their map are similar to what Florida adopted in 2010, said Ed Cook, Iowa Legislative Services Agency senior counsel. The agency kept tabs of the number of incumbent races created from redistricting cycles since 1981, the first that used the agency process. The results are close to our estimates for Florida.

According to Cook, 27 members were drawn into districts with other incumbents in 2011; 39 in 2001; 40 in 1991; and 36 in 1981.

With 100 members in the Iowa House versus Florida's 120, Iowa has had a higher rate of incumbents pitted against each other as a result of redistricting than Florida. But Iowa's experience doesn't satisfy an important caveat of Weatherford's claim — that lawmakers are the ones drawing the lines. They could draw the lines, but they don't. There are no term limits in Iowa.

"Florida moved much closer to the Iowa system with the amendments and the way they approached it," said Tim Storey, the National Conference of State Legislatures redistricting analyst.

California is different, relying like five other states on an independent commission, not an agency, to draw its districts in effort to reduce gerrymandering.

California's latest redistricting cycle pitted a combined 32 incumbents from the state Assembly and Senate in districts against other members, according to redistricting consultant Paul Mitchell. Nine districts were in the House.

So, not as many as our best estimates in Florida. But not exactly a great comparison either.

Our experts said Weatherford's claim seems more accurate than not. Florida is "pioneering" the world of forbidding legislators from drawing incumbent-friendly seats, Storey said.

"He may be right," he said. "With the exception of Iowa, nothing else jumps to mind."

Mitchell wasn't familiar with Florida's incumbent pairings but said, "That would be definitely unique, and it's a strong point to be made."

"Legislatures normally don't do that," Mitchell said. "I don't think the California Legislature would be able to pull that off."

There may be more data on incumbent vs. incumbent races — at least for states with the most dramatic changes, California and Florida, when the election storm calms next year.

"When the process winds down and elections get held in the new maps, the redistricting crowd will really turn its attention to what happened in California and Florida," Storey said.

• • •

Weatherford's claim is reasonable to believe, according to our experts. We could not find direct evidence to contradict his claim, partly because Florida's redistricting process is unique across the country. Even with data for incumbent matchups, as in Iowa and California, Florida doesn't lend itself for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Still, none of our experts expressed absolute certainty. A rigorous 50-state study has never been conducted. Given that element of doubt, we rate his statement Mostly True.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story. Katie Sanders can be reached at [email protected]

The statement

"It's the first time in the nation this many members have been drawn (by a Legislature) into the same districts where it wasn't a court order."

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, March 27, in Times/Herald interview

The ruling: Mostly True

Comments
Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Editorial: Candor key step to restoring trust at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Heart Institute

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has begun the important work of rebuilding trust with its patients and the community following revelations of medical errors and other problems at its Heart Institute. CEO Dr. Jonathan Ellen candidly acknowledges...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Romano: A pathetic legacy for Florida’s all-or-nothing Democrats

Romano: A pathetic legacy for Florida’s all-or-nothing Democrats

Explain this to me: In the world of partisan politics, how is being an independent thinker a bad thing? When it comes to general elections, we seem to like rogues and mavericks. We want outsiders and swamp scrubbers. Folks appreciate a good finger-...
Published: 05/22/18
Daniel Ruth: For her next job, Pam Bondi seems likely to seek the limelight

Daniel Ruth: For her next job, Pam Bondi seems likely to seek the limelight

Decisions, decisions.What will Pammy do? A breathless body politic sits on pins and needles.As she enters her final months in office as Florida’s attorney general, speculation has ebbed and flowed over what the future holds for Pam Bondi. We can prob...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial cartoons for May 23

Editorial cartoons for May 23

These cartoons are from various Times wire services.
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/22/18
Column: Can Americans ditch guns the way we ditched cigarettes?

Column: Can Americans ditch guns the way we ditched cigarettes?

Not that long ago, cigarettes were completely woven into American culture. The Marlboro Man, posters telling us that "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," even the armrests on planes and all our cars were designed for smokers.And now?...
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/22/18

FDLE: Pasco couple scammed elderly employer out of $480,000

TAMPA — A Pasco County couple face dozens of charges after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said they stole more than $480,000 from their elderly employer.Chet Alan Ragsdale, 45, was arrested Monday on 28 counts of grand theft, 25 counts of ...
Published: 05/21/18
PolitiFact Florida: Did Gwen Graham vote against President Obama 52 percent of the time?

PolitiFact Florida: Did Gwen Graham vote against President Obama 52 percent of the time?

A progressive super PAC slammed the congressional record of Democrat Gwen Graham as too conservative for Florida’s next governor.The Collective super PAC paid for the 30-second spot. The group supports black, progressive candidates and is backing Tal...
Published: 05/21/18
Column: Meghan Markle and the bicultural blackness of the royal wedding

Column: Meghan Markle and the bicultural blackness of the royal wedding

e_SSLqWho are your people?" is the question that repeatedly came to me as I watched Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle’s mother, sitting a few feet from her daughter at Saturday’s royal wedding. A common expression among southern African-Americans when gre...
Published: 05/20/18
Updated: 05/21/18
Romano: Save your money, sports betting won’t be in Florida anytime soon

Romano: Save your money, sports betting won’t be in Florida anytime soon

It is the middle of the day and the beginning of the off-season at Tampa Bay Downs. That means the action is limited to simulcast wagering, and that means the televisions outnumber the bettors.The parimutuel industry is long past its heyday in Americ...
Published: 05/19/18
Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Editorial: Tampa Bay House members fail to stand up to Big Sugar

Big Sugar remains king in Florida. Just three of the state’s 27 House members voted for an amendment to the farm bill late Thursday that would have started unwinding the needless government supports for sugar that gouge taxpayers. Predictably, the am...
Published: 05/18/18