TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate released its first round of draft maps for congressional and state Senate districts on Wednesday, offering eight options for senators to review next week, four for each chamber, that appear to shore up Republican districts but without significant changes to Democratic seats.
“The overall thing I’ve seen is they don’t want lawsuits,’’ said Matt Isbell, a map-drawing expert working with the non-partisan, left-leaning People over Profits organization. A decade ago, after a coalition of groups sued the Legislature for drawing illegal maps, courts agreed and ordered the adoption of the current congressional and state Senate maps.
The four draft congressional maps released “have similar fundamentals” and the same partisan balance, retaining the Republican advantage in Congress, Isbell said. The most obvious change is the shifting of District 27 in Miami, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Maria Salazar. The proposed district goes from narrowly pro-Biden to narrowly pro-Trump by no longer including Miami Beach.
“But you don’t see any effort here to really super-protect anybody,’’ he said.
Drawn behind closed doors by the Senate’s redistricting staff, the eight maps were done without public testimony about how the maps should be drawn but, staff said, they attempted to adhere to the guidelines presented by the committee at its October meeting.
“In drawing draft maps for the select subcommittees to review, staff did not consult with any person other than counsel,’’ said Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee in a memo to senators.
“The differences between the draft plans represent trade-offs within co-equal Tier-Two criteria,” he said, referring to the court-approved criteria of equal population, visual compactness, county boundaries, geographic features and attempts to keep cities whole. The proposed maps are available for review under the submitted maps section of the Florida Legislature’s redistricting web site (floridaredistricting.gov).
An early assessment by mapping expert Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report was that the congressional maps were not obviously gerrymanders.
“Bizarre: These maps shore up #FL27 Rep. Maria Salazar (R), but otherwise are barely gerrymanders. By my count these maps break down 16-12 Trump-Biden, vs. 15-12 today. Is this a head fake?,’’ Wasserman wrote on Twitter.
“These maps would put #FL15 Rep. Scott Franklin (R) in the new safe R #FL28, but turn #FL15 into a *Biden* seat in the east Tampa suburbs — effectively creating a new Dem seat. I can’t imagine this is going to be the ultimate GOP plan in FL.”
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The House will draw the map for its 120 districts, and it has announced no plans to release drafts.
Because of Florida’s population growth in the last decade, the state will get one additional member of the U.S. House of Representatives starting next year, bringing the total from 27 to 28.
Central Florida’s growth explosion
As a result, the biggest changes to the congressional maps appear to be 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 as the region became home to many new residents who accounted for the state’s 2.7 million net increase in population since 2010.
The four congressional options continue to divide the city of Orlando into three districts but stretch Soto’s District 9 farther south, capturing all of Osceola County.
One area the maps differ from the original is in the Tampa Bay region, where District 13, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, is almost 5 percent underpopulated. Under the proposed maps, the seat becomes more Republican, Isbell’s analysis shows, but it remains marginally Democratic.
Meanwhile, Franklin’s district which now stretches from just east of Tampa all the way to the western suburbs of Orlando would shift to Polk County and a new 15th District that narrowly favors Biden would be created in eastern Hillsborough County, Isbell said.
Senate plan S8002 results show “narrowly Trump at 16 districts,’’ Isbell Tweeted Wednesday. “But could easily fall to 15 if Dade swings back. Seems to shore-up Dade as best they can.”
Possible conflict for Pizzo, Jones in Senate
In the Senate, Miami Democrat Jason Pizzo is drawn into the same district as Miami Gardens Democrat Shevrin Jones, a seat that is minority Black, Isbell said. But the maps also open a new Democrat-leaning Broward-based seat that does not appear to have an incumbent, he said.
Miami also retains its four Hispanic-majority seats in the four Senate maps, Isbell said, although Senate District 37, now held by Republican Sen. Ileana Garcia, remains a district that leans Democratic.
The lack of population growth in Southeast Florida will result in Democrats likely losing a seat in Palm Beach County, Isbell’s analysis of the four Senate drafts show.
“Palm Beach currently has three Democratic state senators, and in these maps it only has two, so somebody’s running against somebody or somebody’s retiring,’’ he said.
In Central Florida, the geographic size of the district held by Sen. Victor Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, appeared to retain much of its geographic character although his current District 15 is 33 percent overpopulated.
The staff maps increase the geographic size of districts in less-populated rural areas. For example, Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat, represents District 3, which is 10 percent underpopulated, and it would stretch from the eastern edge of Panama City to the Osceola National Forest, which is between Lake City and Jacksonville.
Isbell’s analysis showed that the Senate maps give the GOP the advantage. “The four state Senate plans are all around 23 Trump, 17 Biden. Current breakdown is 22-18,’’ he wrote on Twitter.
The Senate refrained from drawing state House maps, leaving that to the leaders in the GOP-led House.
The draft maps will be discussed next week by the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee as legislators convene for a week-long special session to make changes to COVID-19 policy.
On Tuesday, in advance of the release of the maps, Senate leaders released a rare, bipartisan warning.
In a joint statement, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Senate president-designate Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, suggested that the maps may lead incumbent senators to worry about their reelections.
“As senators, we are frequently presented with situations where we must set aside our personal views and make decisions in keeping with the oath we each took to defend the Constitution and laws of this state,’’ the leaders wrote. “Nowhere is this responsibility more challenging then in redistricting given that some of us may ultimately decide to vote for a map knowing the realities of that map are such that we will never be reelected.”
They suggested that some may conclude they should “defer seeking reelection” or decide to “run against a current colleague who we know and respect.”
The Fair District amendments to the Constitution prohibit legislators from drawing maps to protect incumbents or political parties, while also preserving the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choosing.
But because of the closed-door nature of the map-drawing process, and the Legislature’s adherence to a law that exempts them from releasing their drafts and communications under the public records law, there is no way for the public to check their work — unless a lawsuit is filed.
Advancements in technology have made it possible for independent organizations, including university students working with college GIS programs, to provide their own analysis of the Senate’s maps.
Senate Reapportionment Committee chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, however, urged senators not to talk about the maps, or consult with others about them.
“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 his colleagues in a memo on Monday.
“As we know from our work in other areas of public policy, for-profit activists unlike legislators, don’t have notice requirements. 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.”
The Fair Districts Coalition, a group of voting rights advocates who worked to pass the anti-gerrymandering amendments to the Florida Constitution, on Tuesday released a report card on the Legislature’s attempts at transparency, giving it grades of “D” and “F” in most categories.
Rodrigues, and Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, the chair of the House Redistricting Committee, have said they will follow the Fair Districts constitutional provisions.
Call for more transparency
In the 2012 redistricting cycle, legislative leaders knowingly created a shadow process in violation of the law while vowing to conduct “the most transparent” redistricting process in Florida history. After the maps were challenged, a court ordered them to adopt new maps.
“While legislators have scored points for their promises to not repeat the process and have done a fair job of laying out the requirements of the Fair Districts amendments via their staff and hired attorney — actions speak louder than words,’’ the Fair Districts Coalition wrote. “The actions that have been taken so far are not in-sync with their public narrative.”
Senate spokesperson Katie Betta dismissed the critique by the group. “The Fair Districts Coalition is a Democrat-funded partisan entity, so it is no surprise that the coalition would be unhappy with a process designed to guard against improper partisan infiltration,’’ she said Wednesday.
The coalition has offered a list of suggestions for Florida legislators to employ that would improve public trust in the process. Among them:
▪ Make computer screens used to draft maps viewable online and available in real time. This feature was available for the public in North Carolina, which recently approved its redistricting maps, even while keeping them Republican leaning.
Betta responded that North Carolina live-streamed its map drawing because the state was “ordered to do so by the court as part of the remedial phase of redistricting.” She noted that the Florida Senate also had to take some additional steps last cycle when the court ordered it to impose additional sanctions to avoid outside interference.
“This time, the Senate has created a process insulated against the shadow process that occurred in 2012,’’ she said. “There is no need for staff to live-stream because they are directed not to speak with anyone other than counsel, and they will have to explain the various trade-offs within the co-equal Tier Two standards they present. Senators will then determine how to balance these trade offs as they exercise their legislative discretion and produce a constitutionally compliant map.”
▪ Provide 24/7 audio-video feed in the room(s) where map-drawing computers reside to record conversations and stream in real time, This is a feature currently being offered by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is conducting its map-drawing live this week and providing public access via livestream.
Betta said the legislative meetings “are televised and live-streamed and public comment is received.”
▪ Repeal the 28-year-old law that exempts the Legislature from releasing its redistricting documents and draft maps under the public records law. The law was written before the Fair Districts amendments required legislators to draw maps that do not benefit incumbents or political parties and preserve minority voting access.
Betta did not address, saying only that “any map submitted by senators, staff, or a member of the public is posted to the Joint Legislative Redistricting website.”
▪ Take virtual public input during committee meetings and maintain a public comment log so legislators and staff can refer to the public testimony when drawing the maps.
▪ Allow the public to download the same census, political and demographic data used by legislators so that it can both draw and assess alternative maps. The Fair Districts Coalition says that although the Legislature’s redistricting tool includes this data, that is not enough.
“Without the ability to download the data the public cannot confirm what data they are actually using. Nor can they use the data to evaluate or draw maps in their tool of choice,’’ the coalition wrote.
Betta did not respond to this except to note that the public can create a map on the Legislature’s own website or upload a map from another site and “any member of the public can download a map from our site, and upload that map into any third-party application.”
The Times/Herald, as well as other outside parties, have requested a copy of this data but, for the last month, the response has been: “We are working to fulfill your request.”