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Florida lawmakers promise to follow rules this time in redistricting

Promises of propriety put lawmakers in a tricky situation as they try to adhere to the state Constitution while appearing to be detached from the impact their maps will have on their careers and their political parties.
The last time around, it took court orders to finalize the maps of congressional and state Senate districts in Florida. The process, using new data from the 2020 Census, began Monday, Sept. 20, in Tallahassee. In this photo from 2014, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, discusses an amendment on the floor of the Senate. Behind him are maps of the 2012 Florida congressional districts, left, and the redrawn districts he proposed.
The last time around, it took court orders to finalize the maps of congressional and state Senate districts in Florida. The process, using new data from the 2020 Census, began Monday, Sept. 20, in Tallahassee. In this photo from 2014, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, discusses an amendment on the floor of the Senate. Behind him are maps of the 2012 Florida congressional districts, left, and the redrawn districts he proposed. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]
Published Sep. 24
Updated Sep. 24

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislative leaders launched their once-a-decade remapping of political boundaries this week, they vowed to avoid the pitfalls that got them into trouble with the court 10 years ago.

Both the House and Senate redistricting chairs ordered legislators to record and preserve all communication related to drawing maps. House chair Tom Leek, a Republican from Ormond Beach, said the House will only allow staff and legislators — not political consultants — to draw maps. And both chambers said they will include political data to help them determine if they are preserving minority districts, as required by the Florida Constitution.

“We’re starting with a blank slate,’’ said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican and chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “We’ve got clear guidelines from the previous court decisions on what are the principles that are constitutional to draw the maps, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

But many of those promises put lawmakers in a tricky situation as they try to adhere to the state Constitution while appearing to be detached from the impact their maps will have on their careers and their political parties.

The Fair District amendments to the state Constitution approved by voters in 2010 prohibit legislators from drawing districts to benefit parties and incumbents, and require them to preserve the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice. If they are found to violate the law, their maps will get invalidated, as happened to the Senate and congressional maps last time.

Promises of transparency

The maps of congressional, state Senate and state House districts that accompany this story show the margins between the top two presidential candidates in 2020, and the racial and ethnic breakdowns according to the new 2020 Census data and the change since 2010.

With most legislators new to the process, and many expecting to run again in the newly-drawn districts, legislative leaders opened their meetings this week with several warnings.

“The House of Representatives expects transparency in how input for our work product is received, reviewed and considered,’’ said Rep. Tyler Sirois, a Republican from Merritt Island, who chairs the House’s Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee. “You should not be naive to the fact that external entities and individuals want to influence this process in a way that may not be compliant with the law.”

Faced with the Fair Districts amendments for the first time, legislators 10 years ago conducted public hearings across the state and presented what they said was a historically transparent process when, behind the scenes, they were allowing GOP political consultants to conduct a shadow redistricting process that the courts said infiltrated and manipulated the Legislature.

Sirois said that to avoid having anyone “try to assert their undue influence into our process,” the House will require legislators “to disclose any and all individuals who assisted you in creating the map.”

Members of the public will also be required to complete a form that discloses “groups or individuals with whom they collaborated, and whether any form of compensation was received in return for comments and submissions.”

Will staff be required to submit to those same disclosures? Leek said no.

“The only people helping the committee will be the committee and the committee staff,’’ he told reporters Wednesday. “Nobody else will be involved but the committee staff.”

Need to consider political data

Beyond transparency, legislators have to navigate how to include and use political data to preserve minority districts as required by the Constitution but do it in a way that doesn’t intentionally benefit incumbents or parties.

The Fair Districts amendments incorporated language from Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act in an attempt to protect minority-performing districts from being eliminated.

Last time, the court concluded the way to determine if a district is a strong minority-performing district is to conduct a functional analysis. The process involves reviewing how a district voted in general elections, then assessing the demographic makeup of the primary election, and how the minority population has voted.

For example, if a district is composed of 45 percent African-American voters and the district backed Biden with 60 percent plus of the vote, the conclusion is that the district could give African-Americans the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in congressional or legislative races.

In 2012, for example, legislators drew congressional District 14 as a minority district that stretched across Tampa Bay, linking communities in Tampa to those in St. Petersburg. Legislators justified the district by arguing the 14th District was a “coalition district” that was over 50 percent non-white.

However, the functional analysis showed that the Black and Hispanic populations did not vote as a cohesive unit and, in 2014, the court concluded it was an attempt to pack minority voters into the district so the surrounding white-majority districts would favor Republicans. It ordered the district to be redrawn and not cross the bay.

The court also struck down the Legislature’s 10th and 12th congressional districts in the Orlando region and rejected the state Senate map. The Senate relied only on Census data to determine how a district would perform and did not do a functional analysis that took into consideration voter registration and voting data on how the districts would perform.

The House, by contrast, used a functional analysis, and the House map was the only map not invalidated.

As in previous years, the House and Senate are making map-drawing software available to the public. In 2010, the House and Senate used two different vendors and created two separate sites for the public to draw maps. It was user-friendly and the software included data from both the 2010 Census and American Community Survey data. It also included voter registration and voter performance.

This time, legislators claim that because of technological advancements, their software is better than ever. They will use only one vendor and will use a joint website, www.FloridaRedistricting.gov.

“All the data that we have, all the proxies that we have, will be available not only to every one of you, but to every interest group out there,’’ Leek said Wednesday. “Every citizen out there will have the ability to get in, learn how to use the material, and to draw and submit their own maps.”

But the map software does not yet include the voter data and election results needed to do a functional analysis of any proposed map.

“Over the next couple of weeks, we will continue to roll out additional functionality in the map-drawing application, including enhanced reports that contain the elections data necessary to conduct a functional analysis,’’ Leek told the Times/Herald.

Still unknown is how much maps submitted by the public through the web site will be reviewed and considered by staff and lawmakers.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, the ranking Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee, asked whether staff could present a summary of the maps submitted by the public so that the process is not just driven by legislators.

Leek responded: “If you ask staff to review a specific map, because you would like it reviewed then we will review a specific map.”

Neither Leek nor Rodrigues would commit to having public hearings to collect input on how communities want to see the maps modified, and both suggested they may not be necessary.

Geller suggested conducting virtual public hearings in the state’s key population centers. “Old-style road shows are so pre-COVID,’’ he said.

But Leek said that approach presented problems.

“I think one problem with doing the road show or the virtual road show you’re talking about is it would probably not be feasible to do in every city or community,’’ he said. “So you would be favoring high-density communities over low density.”

Geller also implored the committee to be fair and suggested that the partisan divide in the Legislature is far wider than how the state has performed in the last three general elections when, although Republican candidates won, they won by margins that were between 0.4 and 3 percentage points in statewide races.

Those margins are far narrower than the 78-42 Republican to Democrat advantage in the state house and the 24-16 Republican advantage in the state Senate, Geller said.

“At the end of the day, I’m going to be looking at what our results are and hoping that we are all of us up to the task of providing the people with a map that clearly expresses their political will, as they demonstrated it,’’ he said.

McClatchy data reporter Karen Wang contributed to this report.