Lottery-style drawing caps strange day of redistricting debate

Gary McKenzie and Rynelle Emhof of the Florida Secretary of the Senate’s Office spin the pingpong balls on Wednesday.
Gary McKenzie and Rynelle Emhof of the Florida Secretary of the Senate’s Office spin the pingpong balls on Wednesday.
Published March 22, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — After approving a new court-ordered redistricting map on Wednesday, Florida senators evoked comparisons to both Vanna White and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as they held a lottery to randomly determine which districts get two- or four-year terms.

In a scene reminiscent of a lottery telecast, senators watched as the secretary of the Senate used green and white bingo balls, brass tumbling machines and a large map to conduct the drawing. Their goal was to remove any doubt that the district numbers selected for the next decade would not favor incumbents.

But not everyone agreed with the approach.

"I object to casting lots to make a decision," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, a reference to the biblical description of the Roman soldiers competing for Jesus Christ's garments.

Storms then interrupted the drawing, her voice quivering with emotion. She accused the Senate staff of "illegal gambling," warned they could be arrested on misdemeanor charges and demanded an attorney general's opinion.

But committee chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who conceived of the makeshift lottery, would not stop the drawing. He politely encouraged Storms to seek the attorney general's opinion and ordered Senate staff to carry on.

"This was the most incumbent-neutral and random method that the Senate committee on reapportionment could devise,'' Gaetz said when it was over. The numbers will be attached to Gaetz's proposal, with the new map set to go before the full Senate for a vote on Thursday.

It was high legislative drama in response to a historic judicial ruling.

The Florida Constitution requires staggered terms for the Senate's 40 members but, in a reapportionment year, every district must have an election, so half the districts get a two-year term and the other half gets four. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the Senate's original numbering scheme because it gave nearly every returning incumbent a four-year term, an apparent violation of the new Fair Districts amendments, which forbids lawmakers from intentionally favoring incumbents.

Legislators are back in a 15-day extraordinary session to draw the new plan after the court rejected the first Senate map. After two days of tense deliberations, the committee voted 21-6 along mostly party lines to support Gaetz's plan. Three senators have proposed amendments to the map, and Storms and Sen. Thad Altman also have proposals for a district numbering system that does not rely on brass tumblers and revolving balls.

"I don't believe doing a 'quick pick' here is appropriate," said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who argued that a system could be devised that didn't rely on a random selection process. But Gaetz asked for alternatives and got no offers.

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Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, initially chastised Gaetz for suggesting the lottery be conducted on the Senate floor.

"We don't need Vanna White,'' he said, referring to the long-time Wheel of Fortune celebrity. He suggested a "dignified drawing" be done in the privacy of the Senate secretary's office with independent monitors and recorded on videotape. "Your theory is excellent. I just suggest we adopt a system that is much more restrained."

The drawing resulted in a numbering system that gives eight open seats and 12 returning incumbents, including Gaetz, the opportunity to exceed the eight-year term limit and serve as many as 10 years. Another 15 of the returning incumbents would be limited to eight total years, as would five additional open seats.

The Senate's gamble may not be over, however, Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said.

Under Gaetz's map, the Senate adjusted the eight districts the court said violated the new Fair Districts amendments to the Constitution but did so in a way that continues to violate the anti-gerrymandering provisions. "I think that this map still indicates that it favors incumbents,'' she said.

Diaz de la Portilla said the map will likely draw a federal lawsuit because he believes it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the state to maximize minority voting access. He is proposing an amendment Thursday to create a fourth Hispanic district in Miami-Dade County and, in the process, divide the existing District 35 now held by Democrat Gwen Margolis.

But Margolis challenged him, noting that Diaz de la Portilla failed to offer his proposal when the Senate was drawing its first map months ago.

"This issue has come to light only since his brother has decided to run for my seat,'' she said after the meeting, referring to Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who has filed to run for District 35. If the amendment passes, she warned, "there will never be an Anglo senator from Dade County."