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UF professors: Troubling legislative redistricting moves

In a Times op-ed, they accuse Florida’s Republican lawmakers of using outside contracts to intentionally shield redistricting data and mapping details from the public.
The Capitol in Tallahassee.
The Capitol in Tallahassee. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

TALLAHASSEE — Two University of Florida political science professors who were involved in helping uncover the Florida Legislature’s redistricting scandal a decade ago are accusing Republican leaders this time of using outside contracts to intentionally shield redistricting data and mapping details from the public.

Daniel A. Smith, chairperson of the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida, and Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert who also is a professor in the department, detailed their allegations in an op-ed published in the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

The Florida Senate and House deny the allegations and asked that the column be retracted because it “contains inaccurate and misleading information,” said Senate spokesperson Katie Betta and House spokesperson Jenna Sarkissian.

The professors said they reviewed the contracts the Florida House and Senate signed with a mapping software company, a geographic information systems consultant and a Florida State University research lab. They concluded the terms are “clear evidence the Legislature is shielding data from the public’s eyes, information that would help the Legislature violate their constitutional obligations under Fair Districts.”

Specifically, the professors allege that although legislative leaders have pledged to be transparent and provide the public with the same data they are using to draw new congressional and legislative maps, the contract with FSU’s Florida Resources and Environmental Analysis Center commissions the school to create a database of precinct-mapping data and election results and then uses legislative privilege to specifically exempt the data from public records requests.

Without the data, the professors contend, “it is impossible to determine if a map is drawn ‘to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent’ as required by the Florida Constitution.”

Legislature disputes claims

But in response to a series of questions from the Times/Herald, Sarkissian said that FSU’s research center is being used for redistricting, as it has been used in past redistricting cycles “to assist with the association of census blocks to precincts provided by Florida’s supervisors of elections, which can then be matched to voter registration, voter turnout, and elections results publicly available through the Division of Elections.”

The political data will be used to conduct a court-ordered functional analysis — the process of reviewing how a district voted in general elections to determine if it will elect a minority candidate, she said.

But, she added, that data will only be available for use in the state’s mapping portal, and not for exporting to other sites or into other programs.

That troubles Smith and McDonald, who have worked with national organizations that are attempting to provide a check on legislative gerrymandering across the country by lawmakers of both parties.

Among their tools is independent mapping software that analyzes the political performance of the legislatively-drawn districts, such as PlanScore, Dave’s Redistricting App, and University of Florida’s DistrictBuilder.

“Using these free tools, one could take a redistricting plan developed on the Legislature’s website and evaluate it,’’ the professors wrote.

But the professors allege that the contract with redistricting software vendor Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., specifically prohibits the public from exporting the Legislature’s maps. To use the site, the public must create a personal account and agree to not to copy maps other than as a picture, they said.

The professors note that the data used by the mapping software is publicly available and not unique. “But because the Legislature has conveniently agreed to this restriction, it is impossible to externally evaluate the partisan character of any proposed districts in the maps hosted on the (Environmental Systems Research Institute) application,’’ they wrote, “and it is impossible to know if (Environmental Systems Research Institute) — through incompetence or malfeasance — manipulated the underlying data.”

The House and Senate say this claim is wrong.

“Maps drawn in the Legislature’s software can be downloaded and used elsewhere,” Sarkissian wrote. “Similarly, maps drawn elsewhere using census block data can be uploaded into the Legislature’s software.”

She also suggested that the independent software providers who attempt to provide a check to gerrymandering by both political parties may have other motives.

“The false pretenses negligently published in the op-ed suggesting that (Environmental Systems Research Institute) — a leader in GIS technology — may be manipulating the data is completely baseless and wildly irresponsible,’’ she said.

She suggested that the third-party software applications “may contain tools that violate the plain language of the Constitution” but people are free to use them.

“Or if perhaps they don’t trust the data in PlanScore, Dave’s Redistricting App, and the software the authors created at UF, they can upload their map into our software and run a functional analysis there [once that functionality is finalized, verified, and deployed],’’ she said.

Why geocoding at all?

Smith and McDonald also question why the (Environmental Systems Research Institute) contract requires the mapping software to include geocoding services, which are used to locate an address on a map.

They note that under the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution, legislators are prohibited from drawing maps that favor political incumbents and therefore prohibited from using geocoding to include the location of an incumbent’s home.

“There is no redistricting purpose in the Florida Constitution that requires geocoding services,’’ the professors conclude.

But Sarkissian said that is also an inaccurate conclusion.

“The geocoding service is not available within the mapping application and therefore cannot be used to identify incumbent legislators’ addresses while drawing maps,’’ she said.

Rep. Joe Geller, the ranking Democrat on the Houses Redistricting Committee, said the professors “raise a lot of important questions” and he will pursue answers from House leadership.

However, he is not ready to conclude that the process is already in trouble.

“I have a concern,’’ Geller said. “But I’m not certain that it’s the case that the Legislature is already playing games.”

Smith was among the experts hired by the League of Women voters in 2012 who uncovered the shadow redistricting process used by Republican operatives who produced dozens of congressional and Senate maps that ultimately found their way into maps enacted by legislators.

Now, Smith and McDonald have little faith in Florida’s legislative leaders and make that clear in their opinion piece.

“Florida may be the Sunshine State, but when it comes to redistricting, all the Legislature really wants Floridians to be is in the dark,’’ they wrote. “Hiding information in the shadows, away from the public, makes it impossible to externally verify the Legislature’s actions are tried and true methods for politicians to gerrymander.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas