Florida lawmakers to limit public input before drawing redistricting maps

Unlike in 2012, when legislators did their once-a-decade redistricting and conducted hearings across the state for six months, there will be no roadshow this year.
The Florida Legislature's redistricting hearing in Orlando, at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre downtown, in 2011.
The Florida Legislature's redistricting hearing in Orlando, at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre downtown, in 2011.
Published Oct. 14, 2021|Updated Oct. 14, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — As lawmakers attempt to recover from their mishandling of redistricting a decade ago, leaders in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature say they are ready to discontinue the once-vaunted tradition of conducting public hearings before legislators draw their maps.

They will instead rely on the public to submit comments and maps through a redistricting website but, in response to questions from legislators at meetings this week, they have made no commitment that they will review what they get.

“We’re going to make everything available through the website and give the citizens the tools, the very tools that we have, and the very data that we have, and allow participation that way,’’ said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, chair of the House Redistricting Committee.

“I don’t see where there would be time to do an on-the-road roadshow,” said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, chair of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment, when responding to a question Monday.

Unlike in 2012, when legislators did their once-a-decade redistricting and conducted hearings across the state for six months, there will be no roadshow this time, Rodrigues told his committee. He said that will make it easier for them to avoid infiltration from bad actors, like last time when GOP consultants conducted a shadow redistricting process and submitted maps through the public portal.

He also said the value of public hearings is to get input on communities of interest and this time there is nothing requiring legislators to draw districts that keep communities of interest together.

Rodrigues said the Legislature’s lawyers have concluded that the Florida Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers can’t consider communities of interest because they are not in the objective standards spelled out in the Fair Districts Amendments to the state Constitution. The amendments forbid lawmakers from drawing districts to intentionally benefit incumbents or political parties, or to diminish the ability of minorities to elect members of their choice.

“That does beg the question of whether we need to have a traveling roadshow to receive that information, if we can’t use it once we have,” he said.

But many members of the voting rights groups that backed the amendments say there are reasons to get public input other than hearing about communities of interest.

“We want to make it clear that calling for accessible public input opportunities does not require only the ‘road shows’ of the past,’’ wrote the Fair Districts Coalition Executive Committee, in a letter to lawmakers this week. “The Legislature has all of the technological tools it needs to provide virtual hearings with input opportunities for the public before maps are drafted, as well as in-person opportunities where necessary to provide all Floridians access to meaningful input.”

Call for virtual hearings

On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Legislative Redistricting Subcommittees urged legislators to consider conducting virtual public hearings to get public input.

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“If we’re not going to go around the state because of time or cost or COVID or whatever the case .... my ask would be can we consider some form of virtual meetings to provide actual public access from other parts of the state for folks who can’t schlep all the way up to Tallahassee?’’ asked Rep. Dan Daley of Sunrise, the ranking Democrat on the House Legislative Redistricting Subcommittee.

Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, chair of the subcommittee, avoided an answer. “We’ll pass along the concerns you’ve raised,’’ he said.

The only way the public now has to submit suggestions is by filling out a redistricting suggestion form on the website. Those comments will be posted “in batches that are available for public review,’’ said Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment.

But legislative leaders also said they will limit which public maps get reviewed and submitted.

“The ability to draw district maps has largely been automated,’’ Rodrigues said Monday. “It’s theoretically possible that we could be flooded with thousands of maps.” So, to avoid that, they are requiring that any map proposed by a member of the public be sponsored by a senator in order to be reviewed and considered. The process also will help them avoid maps created by political consultants from infiltrating the process, as happened in 2012.

Daley asked Byrd whether the staff will review any of the public submissions. Byrd answered only if legislators individually request a map to be reviewed. “It will be member-driven,’’ he said.

Drawing by livestream?

Ellen Freidin, CEO of Fair Districts Now, the nonprofit established to pass the constitutional amendments, said that if legislators “really want us to believe these maps are being drawn on the straight and narrow, they would live-stream the mapping, as the Fair Districts Coalition has asked them to do.”

“There’s no reason not to do that in Florida. It was done in North Carolina with some success,’’ she said.

Absent that, Freidin said, “after the maps are finalized and before they go to the floor, that’s the time when citizens should have the opportunity to draw their attention to any deficiencies in their compliance with the Fair Districts amendments.”

Across the country, the trend has been for more public input on redistricting, not less, as the public has become more attentive to the process in the last decade, especially with the availability of livestreamed hearings, said Wendy Underhill, director of Elections and Redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I’m surprised [at Florida], because it seems like it’s burgeoning elsewhere,’’ she said Wednesday in a briefing with reporters. “Even the states that don’t have it in written statute are still making quite an effort.”

Rebuttal to critics

Also this week, Rodrigues and Leek took aim at two University of Florida professors for accusing them of “shielding information from the public.”

In an op-ed published last week in the Tampa Bay Times, UF political science professors Daniel Smith and Michael McDonald noted that the Legislature signed a contract with Florida State University to compile election data to be used to assess how the maps drawn by legislators perform in an election, but the contract specifically exempts releasing the data in response to open records requests and asserts legislative privilege over them.

“I have received questions about this piece and do not want any of our members or constituents to wonder whether this process is being conducted aboveboard, as both the speaker and myself have been very clear from the beginning that this process will follow all laws, and the Florida Constitution,’’ Leek said at the onset of the House Redistricting Committee meeting on Tuesday.

He added that Smith and McDonald “made no attempt to fact check their allegations with our committee first.”

Rodrigues, who is also Senate Redistricting Committee chair, made a similar statement on Monday, when his committee convened for the first time since the allegations were lodged.

However, while both men provided a detailed rebuttal to the allegations, they left some of the claims unanswered.

They both acknowledged that the Legislature’s joint redistricting website was not updated to include elections information the professors alleged they were shielding until Oct. 8, one day after the op-ed was posted.

The professors argued that “a legislative contract with Florida State University commissions the school to create a database of election results. Without these data 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,” they wrote.

Leek explained the delay in getting the data on the website.

“Our goal was to get a mapping application debuted to members and to the public as soon as we could,’’ he said. “Upon receipt of the redistricting data from the U.S. Census Bureau, staff continued to work with our vendor to ensure their tools configuration to correctly display the data needed to conduct a functional analysis, and that was updated this past Friday as that functional functionality was complete.”

Rodrigues said that it took time to assemble the proper data. “We did not have possession of the data at the time the website went up. When we received the data, we put it on the website,’’ he said.

The professors said that by following the user terms of agreement from software vendor ESRI, members of the public “must accept a condition that they will not copy maps from the website in a form other than as a picture” and “no one is allowed to export plans out of the Legislature’s website and into one of these other evaluation websites.”

Smith and McDonald say that without the ability to see what data the Legislature is using, “it is impossible to know if ESRI — through incompetence or malfeasance — manipulated the underlying data.”

Both Leek and Rodrigues said that the elections data is available for the public to download “within our map drawing application with the intent and purpose of it being used to conduct a functional analysis.”

Rodrigues said “public records requests can be fulfilled” but they must go through the Legislature, and not be filled by the contractor, because the House and Senate “are the custodians of the record.”

Leek and Rodrigues suggested that the professors misread the contract when they stated that it allows legislators to tap into geocoding services provided by ESRI.

“There are no geocoding services anywhere within our application,’’ Leek told his committee on Tuesday. “And that technology is specifically not being used in order to protect against favoring or disfavoring an incumbent.”

McDonald, the UF professor who in 2010 built the DistrictBuilder platform which uses open source software to allow the public to create district maps for any state in the U.S., said “it wasn’t our claim that their online tools were using geocoding.”

Geocoding services require “huge databases, so they are really not compatible with online products,’’ he said.

He conceded that it’s possible the language in the contract “was just boilerplate language ESRI has and it found its way into the contract because they are not using it anyway.”

“I’ll grant them that,’’ McDonald said. “But I think the onus is upon them to be more transparent here.”