TALLAHASSEE — The maps are coming.
State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, chair of the Florida Senate Committee on Reapportionment has announced that the committee will have staff-drawn draft maps of its congressional and state Senate redistricting plans available on its website starting Wednesday as part of its first step in completing the must-pass bill during the legislative session that begins Jan. 11.
Drawn behind the scenes by the committee’s staff just over two months after the U.S. Census released the data on which to base them, the maps are supposed to follow the leadership-driven guidelines set by the committee with little discussion at its Oct. 18 meeting.
The maps will be reviewed next week by the Senate redistricting committees during the special session on vaccine mandates, and, while this appears to give the Senate a head start over the House, it demonstrates the top-down nature of the redistricting process as GOP leaders attempt to avoid the legal challenges that resulted in courts throwing out their maps a decade ago.
By contrast, the House redistricting committee has not planned any similar meetings and has no plans to release its draft maps at this time.
The Senate guidelines, written by Rodrigues, an Estero Republican, in consultation with the lawyers hired by the Republican-led Senate leadership, required the staff to follow standards that Rodrigues and the lawyers have determined comply with the Fair District amendments to the state Constitution and court decisions from the 2012 redistricting cycle.
However, while Senate staff will draw maps based on those guidelines, the Senate leaders have refused to release all the data the committee will use to draw the maps.
The Times/Herald has requested a copy of the federal data as well as the elections and political data the Senate staff is using to determine if districts preserve or weaken minority voting districts, but the Senate has so far refused to provide it. Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert and political science professor at the University of Florida, said on Twitter Monday that he has requested the data, but the Senate has not complied.
Legislative leaders have urged their colleagues to retain all related documents in the event the redistricting maps are challenged in court, however they also have refused to commit to releasing their documents under the public records act.
No public hearings
In a memo to senators and released to the public, Rodrigues confirmed there will be no public hearings to take the public’s testimony on the proposed maps. He added that if senators want to conduct their own virtual public hearings to get input they may do so using the Senate’s various online platforms.
In his memo to the Senate, Rodrigues downplayed the role of outside analysts and independent experts in evaluating the maps.
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“I recognize publishing staff-drawn maps several days in advance of the select subcommittee meetings will likely result in self-appointed redistricting experts from all political persuasions immediately flocking to the media seeking to push their own narrative about our staff work product,’’ he wrote.
Several organizations have emerged to say they will download the Florida maps and produce their own analysis to help Florida voters assess whether legislators are abiding by the Fair District goals of not protecting incumbents or political parties.
Represent.Us, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for state and local transparency and anti-corruption law, held a news conference in Tallahassee last week and announced that it plans to evaluate every map produced by Florida lawmakers to determine whether they will perform the way legislators describe it.
Rodrigues on Monday offered a counter-narrative.
“As we know from our work in other areas of public policy, for-profit activists, unlike legislators, don’t have notice requirements,’’ he wrote on Monday. “I encourage senators to be respectful of the work of our staff, whose directives came at the behest of this committee, rather than accepting analysis provided by organizations whose goals could be motivated by improper partisan intent.”
Senate map-drawing guidelines
Rodrigues’ guidelines for staff include:
- Draw districts that are visually compact in relation to their shape and geography and use mathematical compactness scores where appropriate. (The guidelines also require that district population deviations must not exceed 1 percent of the ideal population of 538,455 for state Senate districts, and must not deviate by more than one person in congressional districts.)
- Use county boundaries where feasible and draw districts consisting of whole counties in less populated areas, and in more densely populated areas attempt to keep districts within a county where feasible.
- Where feasible, keep cities whole and use existing geographic boundaries, specifically railways, interstates, federal and state highways and large water bodies.
- Districts should not be drawn “with the result of denying or bridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
- Staff will see how certain “relevant districts” perform politically by conducting a functional analysis to see how they voted in previous elections and “to evaluate whether a minority group has the ability to elect representatives of their choice.”
- Staff will be barred from considering the political performance of districts and “without the use of any resident information of any sitting member of the Florida Legislature or Congress, and to draw districts without regard to the preservation of existing district boundaries.”
Rodrigues said he is comfortable not calling for public hearings on the maps, based on court rulings from 2012, although he will allow people to comment at public meetings as long as they “list every person, group, or organization they collaborated with on their comment, or suggestion.”
“We all know that Florida is incredibly diverse, and public testimony on any issue is a very small sample of the views and opinions of the more than 21 million people who call our state home,’’ he wrote. “As senators, we hear from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of constituents every day on a variety of important issues. Constituents do not wait for a public meeting to make their voices heard.”
He announced that there will be additional rules for anyone from the public who testifies and offers an alternative map for the Senate to review.
“To prevent secretive operations by partisan operatives, those providing virtual public testimony must list every person, group, or organization they collaborated with on their comment, or suggestion,’’ Rodrigues wrote. “And finally, submitters must acknowledge that their communications and submissions may be included, reviewed, and examined in all steps of the legislative process until, and even after, new district maps are enacted into law.”
Although the public is expected to reveal who it has consulted with while drawing maps, the Legislature continues to adhere to a 28-year-old law that exempts legislators from any obligation to produce records of redistricting-related conversations, correspondence and proposed maps. Two Democrats filed a bill to repeal the provision since it preceded the Fair Districts changes to the Constitution.