Florida’s high stakes redistricting process about to start

The U.S. Census Bureau will release detailed data from the 2020 Census on Thursday.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls smile as they speak with members of the media after the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls smile as they speak with members of the media after the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Aug. 11, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida politicians, start your engines.

The once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries to adjust for population growth officially begins Thursday as the U.S. Census Bureau releases detailed results from the 2020 Census, providing the shotgun start to what has traditionally been one of the most politically charged battles in Florida’s capital city.

The numbers in the redistricting data file will become the foundation for the Florida Legislature, and local cities and counties, to redraw their political districts. It’s an important task because it can influence who gets elected, how well various communities that are often left out of the political process are represented, and how federal funds are allocated.

The stakes are high.

For Florida Republicans, who control the process, this redistricting cycle will be an opportunity to redeem a reputation that was marred 10 years ago when courts intervened because they had allowed political operatives to conduct an illegal shadow map-drawing process behind the scenes as their leaders claimed their actions were honorable and transparent.

For Florida Democrats, the state could play a pivotal role in President Joe Biden’s ability to pursue his agenda.

Florida is expected to gain one additional seat in Congress because of population growth, and a small shift in its 28-member congressional delegation alone could alter the partisan balance in the U.S. House. Democrats have such a narrow majority in Congress that a five-seat shift would give Republicans the majority.

Both parties are watching it carefully, with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, hiring a Florida director to focus on monitoring the process and getting people to realize the role competitive districts have on policy.

“If you get a gerrymandered legislature, you can pass things that are inconsistent to desires of your constituents and not face any political consequences,” Holder said in an interview.

The data released on Thursday may provide some detail as to which part of the state that new seat is likely to go. Based on early estimates of population growth, experts expect it to land in Central Florida, which has seen the fastest growth in a fast-growing state.

Florida’s unique rules

Unlike many other states, Florida voters in 2010 approved the Fair Districts amendments to serve as a check on legislative power by prohibiting legislators from drawing maps to benefit incumbents or political parties. The amendments also require districts to adhere to geographic and political boundaries and be reasonably compact in design.

A decade ago, House and Senate leaders vigorously opposed the Fair District amendments but, when voters approved them with 63 percent of the vote, they responded by vowing to conduct the most transparent redistricting process in state history. They spent a summer traveling the state, seeking input from the public about how best to draw the maps to provide the fairest representation to local communities.

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However, behind the scenes, political operatives were drawing their own maps and scheming to have them submitted by members of the public, under fake names, through the public portal. The process worked, and the maps drawn by the operatives were enacted into law and remained in force for the 2012 and 2014 election cycles — until the courts threw them out for violating the state Constitution.

It was a precedent-making period in Florida history. To enforce the Fair District rules, the coalition of voting groups led by the League of Women Voters relied on the court to be the extra eyes on the redistricting process and sued to challenge the maps as unconstitutional. In the end, the court’s role was pivotal.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis concluded that Florida’s legislative leaders had destroyed documents and allowed political consultants to “make a mockery” of their self-described transparency in the redistricting process. He found that GOP political consultants wrote scripts for people to read at public hearings, “infiltrated and influenced the Legislature” and “manipulated the Legislature into violation of its constitutional duty.”

Florida courts invalidated the Legislature’s map for Congress and, predicting the Florida Senate map would face a similar fate, Senate Republican leaders admitted that the map that they had passed for the Senate was unconstitutional because it had been drawn with intent to favor the Republican Party. Although legislators attempted to redraw the Senate map, they couldn’t avoid protecting incumbents, and the court rejected their attempt, and ultimately implemented a new map for the state Senate.

So after numerous legal fights, the state Senate and Congressional maps in use today were either adopted or drawn by the courts.

“It took four hard, long years of scorched earth litigation to prove this scam,’’ said Ellen Freidin, founder of the FairDistricts Florida Movement and CEO of FairDistricts Now Inc., a coalition of left-leaning voting advocacy groups. But, she adds: “The citizens of Florida, 63 percent of whom had voted for fair districts, really were cheated out of fair districts for two election cycles in this last decade.”

Increasing competition

In the end, the maps favored more Democrats, but they did not dramatically shift the political landscape. The 2012 redistricting process gave Florida two new congressional seats, and the GOP-controlled maps resulted in Republicans winning 17 of the state’s 27 districts, while Democrats saw a net gain of three districts.

The court-drawn map in use today has led to a Florida congressional delegation comprised of 16 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and a vacancy left by the April death of Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach. His seat is considered reliably Democratic.

Related: Open congressional seats have Florida Democrats in risky scramble

In the state Legislature, Republicans have secured a tight grip on the majority. There are 78 Republicans in the state House to 42 Democrats, and Republicans have a 24-16 advantage in the 40-member state Senate.

For the backers of the Fair Districts process, the effort has been a success. Their goal was to increase competition, Freidin said in a news conference on Wednesday. To that end, the process worked.

In the 2016, 2018 and 2020 election cycles, “more candidates ran for office for Congress and for the Senate than ever had before. And there was a 500 percent increase in Senate races that were decided within a six-point margin,’’ she said.

In 2016, for example, there were five very close congressional races, each of which resulted in electing someone of the other party. “Some went Republican to Democrats and some went from Democrat to Republican, but there was a real shuffle involved here, which means that competition really was inspired and alive after the Fair Districts amendments.”

When there is no guarantee of serious competition, “incumbents have no motivation to work across the aisle and more importantly, little to no motivation to actually represent all of the people in their community, rather than just kind of those steadfast supporters that form the core of their districts,’’ said Suzanne Almeida, redistricting and representation counsel at Common Cause.

Competition had a moderating impact on policy, said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. When voters are not packed into districts with like-minded voters, it forces their representatives to listen to more diverse voices because “they can no longer be assured of winning, just because they’re playing to their base,’’ she said.

For example, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who had denied climate change, changed his position after redistricting, Scoon said. Former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen had opposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour but rescinded her opposition after her district boundaries became more competitive. And former state Sen. Anitere Flores, a Kendall Republican, broke ranks with Republican leaders and singlehandedly blocked bills backed by gun rights advocates.

“Fair Districts changed the makeup of her district because, as she stated, the reasons she did that was because she had to listen to the new voices in her district that were not there previously,’’ Scoon said.

National focus on Florida

Holder said partisan gerrymandering often takes its greatest toll on communities of color because maps can be drawn to pack communities into a single district, or dividing them substantially, diluting their influence to give the party that controls redistricting an advantage.

To that end, his organization will be watching how well Florida legislators listen for community input. ”You just can’t get that from just looking at a map, you’ve got to really interact with people and get a sense of what the interests are of people, what the concerns are of people,” he said.

In addition to Florida, the other states the National Democratic Redistricting Committee will have an active presence in include Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

The debate over political boundaries is likely to consume the attention of the Florida Legislature when it convenes its regular session on Jan. 11. The final maps will be approved by the end of session in March and that is expected to unleash the legal challenges, as it did in 2012.

This time, however, the court has been shaped by a decade of conservative governors and is expected to be less of a threat than it was in 2012. Since then, the last three state Supreme Court justices appointed by a Democratic governor have retired and were replaced by conservative justices appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Freidin said they are holding out hope that Republicans will want to “earn back that trust” and follow the law with an open and transparent process that involves genuine, not contrived, public input.

But, she said, House and Senate leaders have conducted no public hearings, have not named members to their respective reapportionment committees and the respective chairs of the committees in House and Senate, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, have made few comments, except that they will follow the law.

An effort by the Fair Districts Coalition to get Republicans and Democrats to sign a pledge agreeing to follow the Constitution was signed by only 17 of the 160 legislators. “There really has been no sign or a signal of any interest in earning back the trust of Floridians,” Freidin said. “This redistricting process has been an extremely secretive process.”

The coalition sent a letter in June asking the House and Senate leaders of both parties to live-stream their map drafting, as was done in North Carolina, to make all redistricting communication public, and to preserve all internal communications relating to redistricting. They also asked for all mapping data sets used in the process be made available to the public in a usable format and to solicit public input before and after the maps are drawn. Freidin said they received no response.

Neither Rodrigues nor Leek responded to requests for comment for this story.

“I would like to be optimistic about this current redistricting cycle,’’ Freidin said Wednesday. “So far, the Legislature has not given us any reason to be optimistic that the Fair Districts amendments will be will be adhered to. But we always remain hopeful.”