Florida redistricting could stoke new political tension

Adding one congressional district promises to upset legislative and congressional boundaries from Miami to St. Petersburg.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on March 3, 2021.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on March 3, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators will formally launch their reapportionment efforts Monday, armed with the Census data that gives Florida one new congressional district and promises to upset legislative and congressional boundaries from Miami to St. Petersburg.

The biggest changes will be felt in Central Florida, where Florida’s congressional District 9, held by Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, grew faster than any other congressional district in the nation over the last decade, and the region became home to most of the state’s 2.7 million new residents.

But the ripple effect of reapportioning Florida’s 28 congressional districts, 120 state House districts and 40 Senate districts, is likely to exacerbate already festering political, geographic and racial divides. After being slapped down in the last redistricting cycle, the question before the Republican-led Legislature now is how far is it willing to test the constitutional limits by drawing maps that satisfy partisans but potentially risk rebukes from a more ideologically aligned but conservative state Supreme Court?

“They’re in a strong position electorally so the question is, how much do you really want to gerrymander and subject yourself to lawsuits in a state where you’re already doing pretty good?” asked Matt Isbell, a Democratic data consultant and owner of MCI Maps, who has written an extensive history of Florida redistricting.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who has spent decades studying redistricting, said that Republicans will face pressure to be both aggressive and cautious.

“We’ll have to see what risk Republicans are willing to take,’’ he said. “There’s always the possibility that they could be too aggressive and then find themselves doing what is sometimes called the dummymander — instead of the gerrymander, they end up actually hurting themselves in the long run.”

The Florida Senate Redistricting Committee, led by Estero Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, convenes for the first time Monday. The House Redistricting Committee, led by Ormond Beach Republican Rep. Tom Leek will meet Wednesday, with its subcommittees on legislative and congressional redistricting meeting on Thursday.

The committees have not released a timeline for draft maps or public input, except to say that they hope to have bills proposed and passed by the end of the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

Tarnished legacy

Ten years ago, faced with the Fair Districts amendments to the Constitution for the first time, legislators drew the court’s ire. In 2010, voters approved the amendments to prohibit legislators from drawing maps to benefit incumbents or political parties while adhering to geographic and political boundaries and keeping districts reasonably compact in design.

Despite claims by legislators that they conducted a legal and historically transparent process, the courts found they had violated the Constitution by allowing GOP political consultants to conduct a shadow redistricting process that infiltrated and manipulated the Legislature.

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After four years of legal fights, the state Senate and congressional maps in use today were either adopted or drawn by the courts. The House map was not challenged, but the court found that House Republican leaders also were complicit in the shadow map-making scheme.

This time, legislative leaders have said little about how they will draw the maps except to say they are aware of the law.

Ellen Freidin, CEO of FairDistricts Now, the group that organized the Fair Districts campaign, argues that this year legislators should start with the current maps as the baseline because they have been approved by the courts as fair.

“Adjustments should be made as minimally as possible on existing maps,’’ she said last week. “If they become significantly more Republican in performance, there’s going to be a lot of justifying to do, especially if the districts become less compact and the population deviations grow, or city and county splits grow.”

But Florida’s fast, and uneven growth, could complicate that goal.

According to the U.S. Census, Florida’s population rose 14.6 percent in the last decade, from 18.8 million to 21.5 million. Compared to 10 years ago, each congressional district will need to have 72,876 more people to reach the ideal population of 769,221. State Senate districts will grow by 68,422 to 538,455 people. And state House districts will rise by 22,807 to 179,485.

But not every district has seen even growth. A Miami Herald analysis shows that while Soto’s Orlando-based district has 24 percent more people than the ideal congressional district, across I-4 in St. Petersburg’s District 13, held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, that district is almost 5 percent underpopulated.

In the state Senate, the districts with the widest population deviation are held by Sen. Victor Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat whose District 15 is 33 percent overpopulated, and Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat, whose District 3 is 10 percent underpopulated. In the state House, Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson’s District 44 is 32 percent overpopulated, while Port. St. Joe Republican Jason Shoaf’s District 7 is 14 percent underpopulated.

Winners and losers

Balancing the population in these districts will produce winners and losers:

▪ Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties could lose a seat in the state Senate while Tampa or Orlando may gain one.

▪ Republican incumbents, particularly in parts of the state that didn’t see the greatest growth, could find themselves pitted against one another as their districts are forced to expand.

▪ The Florida Constitution protects minority voters from any reduction in electing candidates of their choosing, but Republicans could create a new congressional seat in Central Florida that could elect a Hispanic Democrat while undermining an African-American seat.

▪ The geography of the state House gives Republicans their strongest electoral advantage, especially with Donald Trump’s winning the state by 3.5 points in the 2020 presidential election.

▪ The state Senate is a bigger battleground because the existing court-ordered map had three swing districts and provoked Republicans to recruit ghost candidates to siphon votes away from the Democrat in highly contested races last year.

▪ Districts that serve Florida’s most rural areas are going to have to expand geographically, while those in urban areas will shrink in size.

Will legislators be more aggressive and stretch the new Central Florida district to encompassing outlying rural areas, split county boundaries and potentially risk drawing districts in a non-compact way that might violate the Fair District provisions? Or do they refrain from that and risk disappointing incumbent lawmakers and partisans?

The answers to those questions will also depend on a newly configured Florida Supreme Court, which must approve the state legislative maps.

Since 2010, 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.

“Will this new Republican majority state Supreme Court be more likely to tolerate gerrymandering, or are they going to put some brakes on it, and uphold the state Constitution?” McDonald asked. “That’s anybody’s guess.”

Central Florida is key

The biggest game-changer, however, will be how lawmakers shuffle the congressional and legislative districts in Central Florida, where the growth in population came primarily from Hispanics and Puerto Ricans moving into that region.

Based on preliminary data, both McDonald and Isbell say legislators will likely have to draw a new Hispanic-majority seat in that area to comply with the requirements of the state Constitution.

But Ryan Tyson, a Republican data consultant, said he sees conflict ahead in both Central Florida and Miami.

“I foresee a very unfortunate collision coming between drawing Black seats and Hispanic maps,’’ he said. While he can create a solid Hispanic seat in Central Florida, it leaves District 10, held by Democrat U.S. Rep. Val Demings, “very messy.”

Isbell conceded that because of the fast-growing Hispanic population in the region, over time the district “could wind up where Demings’ district has more Hispanic voters than African Americans.” But, he added, the voter data is likely to make the district still majority African American in a primary.”

Similar tensions could emerge in South Florida. In Miami, the African-American districts didn’t grow as fast as other parts of the state, so, to keep their character and elect African Americans, the boundaries will have to expand into other areas.

To retain the four Hispanic seats in Miami-Dade in the state Senate, “everything else will need to be pushed north and one of the white Democratic seats in Broward or Palm Beach will just be squeezed away because of the population metrics,’’ Isbell predicted.

In Miami, Republicans are likely to retain the gains they have made, he said, but is it sustainable?

“I’m sure they are conducting some aggressive analysis for how they can achieve gains down the line,’’ Isbell said.

By contrast, in Central Florida, the region has grown so much that Senate Democrats would pick up a seat there while in Senate District 9, now held by Republican Jason Brodeur, the district is so overpopulated, legislators could grab excess population from Orange County, he said.

But because that would make the district too Democratic, Isbell doubts they will do that.

“If I see a state Senate map that has Brodeur’s 9th going into Orlando, then I know it’s the most nonpartisan map ever because it’s the most logical course of action politically,’’ he said.

Tampa Bay and Jacksonville in play

Ten years ago, legislators attempted to pack Black and Hispanic Democrats in Tampa Bay into a single district, calling it a coalition district, but the courts rejected it, ruling that the communities in two different cities did not vote as a cohesive coalition. This time, Isbell said he will be watching efforts to revive that configuration as they attempt to add population to Scott Franklin’s Congressional District 15 that now stretches from just east of Tampa all the way to the western suburbs of Orlando and state Senate District 24 in Pinellas County, held by Republican Jeff Brandes.

McDonald, the UF professor and a co-principal investigator on the Public Mapping Project, said he will be watching how legislators handle Congressional District 5, a minority-majority district now held by Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson. The district stretches across the top of the state from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and, because it is underpopulated by about 20,000 people, will need to expand into other areas.

In 2012, legislators drew the district to run from Jacksonville to Orlando, and it became known as one of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country.

When the map was challenged by a coalition of voting rights groups, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled in 2014 that the district violated the Fair District amendments by packing Black voters together to give surrounding districts a Republican advantage. He ordered the district redrawn.

Now, the counties in the northern part of the state have seen both population loss and population growth, and analysts are watching to see whether legislators continue District 5′s current configuration, or try to revert to the Jacksonville-to-Orlando shape they passed in the past.

“If you radically reshape the Fifth Congressional District to go all the way down to Orlando, that disrupts everything, and that raises some voting rights issues,’’ McDonald said. “There’s a temptation there for politics to come into play to gain another congressional district for the Republicans.”

Leaders control

Some things, however, won’t change.

Redistricting in Florida is traditionally controlled by leadership, and Republicans hold the majority and therefore will control the maps.

The House and Senate staff are building a joint portal for the public to submit maps, and they plan to teach individual members how to construct their own maps, said Leek, the House Redistricting Committee chair last week.

But individual members usually don’t have the data and the technological know-how to draw their own districts, and they are often focused on preserving their own districts and negotiating with members of their own party or members in adjoining districts.

As a result, the legislative leaders of both parties “have to be the traffic cop,’’ McDonald said. “They’re also controlling the access to the data, and the tech, so that members don’t have as much power to even come up with alternative ways of drawing their districts. They’re more helpless, relative to the leadership.”