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Florida legislators resist calls for redistricting transparency

GOP leaders have held no public hearings, will give no media interviews, and have not responded to requests from voters’ groups that they conduct a transparent process
Florida's Capitol complex in Tallahassee.
Florida's Capitol complex in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 15
Updated Sep. 15

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida legislators launch the once-a-decade redrawing of state legislative and congressional district boundaries next week, they will face new obstacles that include a compressed schedule because of a delay in the census process and restoring public trust after a court’s conclusion that the last process was secretly and illegally “hijacked” by Republican political operatives 10 years ago.

But despite the hurdles, Florida GOP leaders have held no public hearings, will give no media interviews, and have not responded to requests from voters’ groups that they conduct a transparent process devoid of influence from secretive political operators.

For the Fair Districts Coalition, a group of nonpartisan advocates that won voter approval for the Fair Districts amendments that require legislators to draw maps that do not favor incumbents or political parties, the Legislature’s approach falls short.

“This is a very disappointing start,’’ said Ellen Freidin, president of the Fair Districts Now, a member of the coalition, whose partners include Common Cause Florida, League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising, UnidosUS and Florida Conservation Voters.

This year, the Fair Districts Coalition asked all 160 legislators to sign a pledge to keep the redistricting process transparent. Only 19 lawmakers, all Democrats, signed it.

”I think they’re being told not to talk to anybody because basically, what the leaders are saying to the members is: Anything you say can be used in a court of law,’’ she said. “But if they were following the law, there’s not going to be any use for it. In other words, if they say things that are consistent with the fair districts amendments, then how could that be used against them?”

Under state and federal law, legislators must update the congressional and legislative political boundaries every 10 years to reflect the changes in population to make sure that all citizens are fairly and equally represented. But because of delays brought on by the pandemic, the release of the official census data was delayed, compressing the time lawmakers now have to do the work when they meet in regular session in January.

In addition, legislators must overcome the black eye they received 10 years ago, when they attempted to circumvent the Fair District amendments to the state Constitution. When the maps were challenged by the League of Women Voters and a coalition of voters groups, the courts rejected multiple versions of the GOP-led Legislature’s congressional and state Senate maps, turning to third parties to draw the maps now currently in place.

“The House deeply understands the large responsibility ahead of us, and we are committed to ensuring that the entirety of this process will follow all state and federal law,’’ said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach and chair of the House Redistricting Committee, in a statement through a spokesperson on Tuesday.

The House plans its first meeting Wednesday, Sept. 22, with congressional and legislative subcommittees to follow the next day. Leek’s statement said that during interim committee weeks that take place before the January legislative session, “we will educate members about the redistricting process, review available materials for constituents, and train members on the map drawing software, among other things.”

The Senate schedule suggests that its regularly-scheduled committee hearings in September, October and November will also serve as “public hearings.”

“It does not seem that it would be appropriate for the chair and [subcommittee chairs] to get out ahead of a noticed meeting,’’ wrote Katie Betta, Senate deputy chief of staff, in response to the Times/Herald requests for interviews ahead of the Senate Redistricting Committee Meeting scheduled for Monday, Sept. 20.

“We are happy to provide you the following informational presentations that may be helpful,’’ she wrote, and attached links to prepared documents on the Senate’s incomplete redistricting timeline, a selective overview of the redistricting process, the role of the 2022 Census and a collection of historical maps. “These were developed for Senators to use in communicating with constituents and other groups about redistricting.”

Coalition asks legislators to keep process open

In a letter to legislators, the coalition asked them to pledge to support transparency in the redistricting process, stream map-drawing online in real time so the public can watch the process — as a court ordered North Carolina legislators to do in 2019 — create opportunities for the public to provide input before maps are drawn, and allow public comment on draft maps after they are presented.

The coalition also asked that “all records including draft maps” be retained and that members be instructed to “not destroy any documents that relate to redistricting.” In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to release all its redistricting related documents, the Legislature had destroyed it all, except a handful of draft maps.

“Now it is your turn to show the state and our country that Florida legislators actually respect our Constitution and are willing to put it ahead of their personal or partisan wish lists,’’ the coalition wrote to legislators. “The pressure will be great for you to succumb to partisan demands. But, in order to restore public trust, we implore all of you to put the people of Florida first and scrupulously follow the Fair Districts Amendments.”

They pointed to the botched handling of the redistricting process in 2012, when Don Gaetz, then Senate president, proclaimed the redistricting process was “the most open, transparent and interactive process in Florida history” at the same time he and other legislative leaders were engaged in a shadow redistricting process that allowed political consultants to draw maps and secretly share them with legislative staff.

What happened last time

GOP political consultant Frank Terraferma and other political operatives testified how proposed maps with shadowy names such as “Sputnik,” “Schmedloff” and “Frankenstein” were created and then secretly shared during the months legislative staff were also drawing maps.

And for the first time in state history, sitting legislators were called to testify in a pending court case. They admitted to routinely deleting redistricting records. Phone records of a House speaker and his right-hand man, sought for more than a year, were never produced. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.

The maps drawn by political consultants closely mirrored those submitted under the name of a former Florida State University student who denied being associated with the redistricting process. Plaintiffs argued that was proof that GOP consultants had orchestrated a “shadow” system to infiltrate the redistricting process.

Although the House map was not challenged and was approved by the Florida Supreme Court, House leaders ultimately were implicated in the shadow map-drawing scheme. Kirk Pepper, the former deputy chief of staff to former House Speaker Dean Cannon, admitted in court that he made a mistake by secretly feeding redistricting plans to a Republican political consultant in 2012.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis concluded that political operatives had worked to “hijack” the state’s redistricting process and tainted the congressional map with “improper partisan intent.”

Years of court cases with a damning outcome

After four years of litigation, the Florida Supreme Court adopted maps that are so competitive that both the state Senate and the Congressional delegation saw shifts in the partisan balance after the 2016, 2018 and 2020 election cycles.

“As a result of all the litigation, the Legislature was proven to have acted intentionally to violate the Constitution. They lost public trust and it’s pretty clear that people don’t trust them to do the right thing,’’ Freidin said Tuesday. “There’s only one way, in my view, for them to earn that trust back and that is to conduct this process transparently.”

There are some signs that House and Senate leaders are being cautious about their legal liability. In a Sept. 3 email to senators, Senate President Wilton Simpson wrote:

“Senators should continue to take care to insulate themselves from interests that may intentionally or unintentionally attempt to influence the redistricting process inappropriately. Senators and staff should also be mindful that correspondence, including electronic communications related to the enactment of new districts, whether sent or received on official Senate accounts or devices or personal email accounts or devices, may be of permanent or archival value and those records should be preserved accordingly.”

Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat who was appointed Tuesday to serve as ranking Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee, said his goal is to make sure the committee is focused on “transparency, public input, a fair process that allows everyone access to the technology” and “a process of fairness and a result of fairness that reflects where this state is politically and the closeness of divisions.”

“The product is the ultimate way to restore trust and enact something that’s fair,’’ he said.

Florida’s redistricting process has been pummeled by legal challenges for the last 40 years, starting when Democrats controlled the Legislature in 1992 to 2012, when courts rejected the maps and allowed legislators to run in outdated districts in 2012 and 2014 as the lawsuits moved through the court system.

During those years, however, legislative leaders did not shy away from answering reporters’ questions about their vision for moving forward, how they planned to avoid the legal pitfalls of the past, and what the timeline looked like.

Before the House or Senate released their maps in November 2011, for example, then Rep. John Legg, co-chairman of the House subcommittee on congressional redistricting, said in an interview with the Miami Herald that the issue of retrogression, the reduction in voting strength of a racial or ethnic minority based on a redistricting plan, was “going to be a paradigm issue we have to look at.’’

Ten years earlier, in March 2001, then-Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando and the chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, told the Palm Beach Post that Republicans who believe they can draw a plan that guarantees they wouldn’t lose seats in the House and Senate were mistaken. “I don’t think you could have a plan that could guarantee that for either side,” he said.

This year, the Fair Districts Coalition asked all 160 legislators to sign a pledge to keep the redistricting process transparent. Only 16 lawmakers, all Democrats, signed it.