Florida Senate’s draft maps don’t increase minority districts

The Senate says the goal of the maps that staff has proposed was to preserve the number of Black- and Hispanic-majority voting districts created in 2010. Voting rights groups say that isn’t enough.
Visitors walk in front of the Capitol.
Visitors walk in front of the Capitol. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Nov. 16, 2021|Updated Nov. 17, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Do Florida legislators have an obligation to create new congressional and legislative maps that reflect the growth in the state’s minority population and allow more minorities to get elected to office?

The answer could be pivotal in the emerging redistricting debate when legislators meet in regular session in January.

But when Cecile Scoon, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, asked a Senate committee this week why it wasn’t evaluating its draft maps to determine whether they maximize the ability for minority communities to elect people of their choice, the answer Republican leaders gave her boiled down to this: They don’t have to.

“I don’t necessarily know that the population growth across the state compels us to do that,’’ said Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment.

He referred to the “benchmark” maps approved by the courts in 2015 based on census data of 2010, and said the goal of the maps that staff has proposed was to preserve the number of Black- and Hispanic-majority voting districts created in 2010.

But Scoon, who is a civil rights attorney in Panama City, said that wasn’t enough.

She cited the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, which require legislators to protect the ability of racial or language minorities “to participate in the political process” and prevent lawmakers from diminishing “their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

The Constitution expects legislators to analyze all the districts in the state to make sure they don’t harm all minority voters, not just those in what the staff has decided are minority-majority districts, she said.

Census results provide new data

Every 10 years, Florida legislators must redraw legislative and congressional maps to reflect changes in the population. The 2020 Census results showed that the percentage of Floridians identifying themselves as from more than one racial or ethnic group increased dramatically over the last 10 years, while the percentage of people who identify as white declined.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that 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 Black voters and the district backed Joe Biden with more than 60 percent of the vote, the conclusion is that the district could give Blacks the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in congressional or legislative races.

Scoon asked the Senate committee to conduct a functional analysis of all districts “to comply with the Fair Districts provisions in the Constitution, which requires you to know that there has been no diminishment of the voting rights of racial minorities or language minorities.”

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But Ferrin said the Senate is only doing the analysis for the districts it has decided are minority-based districts “based on the density of minority populations.’’

Scoon said that approach defies the goal of the Fair Districts amendments.

“What’s the point” of waiting for the census data if legislators were going to draw maps based on the minority population of 2012, she asked.

“The problem with relying on a benchmark for today is that was frozen in time in 2010,’’ she said after the meeting. “That’s a good start, because that’s where the court said these are minority access points and you shouldn’t drop below that point, but the growth has been beyond that. So they’re leaving the other parts of the state completely bare.”

Senate’s legal opinions

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Congressional Reapportionment, who is also a lawyer, disagreed that more analysis of minority voting performance was needed.

“The staff has done the functional analysis on every district that they were constitutionally required to perform that analysis on,’’ said Bradley, R-Fleming Island, after the meeting.

As she spoke, George Meros and Dan Nordby, two outside lawyers contracted by the Senate’s Republican leadership to handle redistricting for the state Senate stood nearby.

Scoon asked Bradley if the committee would release to the public the precinct-level voting data to determine who minority voters in each community tend to elect.

“It’s neighborhoods that make up performance, not the whole state,’’ she said.

She said that the precinct information was gathered and paid for when the Senate hired Florida State University to compile voting performance data.

But Ferrin responded that the precinct-level elections data is incorporated into the Senate’s census block data and he didn’t see any purpose in disaggregating the data based on precincts.

“We’re drawing on census blocks, not precincts,’’ he said.

A South Florida example

Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert and University of Florida political science professor who also runs the Public Mapping Project, said that for legislators to understand the likelihood of minority communities electing representatives of their choice, they must analyze their voting performance at the neighborhood, or precinct level.

For example, he said, Cubans in Miami don’t vote the same way as other Hispanic voters.

His analysis of the Senate’s draft maps for both congressional and state Senate seats “combine high turnout Cuban Americans in Hialeah and in Little Havana with low turnout Hispanic communities that surround those areas,’’ he said.

However, another alternative is to create a compact district that is “a predominantly Cuban-American district but also a very heavily Republican district and then allow the surrounding [non-Cuban] Hispanics to have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,’’ McDonald said.

Ten years ago, the Senate got into trouble because it 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 to determine if their maps protected minority voting rights as intended.

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. They justified the district by arguing the 14th District was a “coalition district” that was over 50 percent nonwhite.

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 House, by contrast, used a functional analysis on its redistricting maps, and the House map was the only map not invalidated.

The next step for the Senate committee, Bradley said, is to make a recommendation at its meeting in December as to which one of the four staff-drawn maps should advance to the full committee for a vote.