Florida Senate maps of Tampa Bay district draw complaints from experts

Each of the proposed Senate maps preserves a configuration of the Black-majority district, Senate District 19, with part in Tampa and the other in St. Petersburg. But experts say crossing Tampa Bay is no longer necessary because of population growth.
Proposed redistricting maps from the Florida Senate.
Proposed redistricting maps from the Florida Senate. [ [Florida Senate] ]
Published Nov. 18, 2021|Updated Nov. 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats offered the first sign of pushback in the proposed redistricting maps prepared by the Senate staff on Wednesday by asking them to end a 30-year-old tradition of linking Black neighborhoods by crossing Tampa Bay.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, asked the staff of the Republican-dominated Senate Reapportionment Committee whether the growth in population makes it now possible to create a minority-majority district without linking predominantly Black communities in Tampa and St. Petersburg by crossing the water.

Each of the proposed Senate maps preserves a 30-year configuration of the Black-majority district, Senate District 19, with part of the district in Tampa and the other in St. Petersburg.

Under the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, legislators may not diminish the voting strength of Black and Hispanic voters. The Senate staff, advised by a bevy of outside attorneys, have determined that the only way to preserve the districts is to continue to link them by crossing the bay.

The current boundaries of Senate District 19, which crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The current boundaries of Senate District 19, which crosses Tampa Bay to include parts of St. Petersburg and Tampa. [ Florida Senate ]

Several outside redistricting experts disagree. They argue that growth in the population in the last decade now makes it possible to create a district that will elect a Black candidate without splitting communities.

“You can easily draw a Hillsborough-only district that has a higher African-American share of the primary,’’ said Matt Isbell in a thread on Twitter. “So there is no reason to cross the water. So why are all plans still doing it?” Isbell, a redistricting analyst, has written a history of the Tampa Bay minority district.

Nicholas Warren, a redistricting expert who worked at the Florida Supreme Court during the previous redistricting cycle and is now a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, told the Senate Legislative Reapportionment Subcommittee on Wednesday that he has submitted an alternative map.

Warren’s proposal keeps SD 19 compact in Hillsborough, and alters six districts from the south. The plan also keeps two-thirds of Pasco County in a single Senate district, while the Senate plans divide them into three different districts.

“Maybe last decade it wasn’t possible to draw a district holding Hillsborough whole while maintaining the ability to not diminish (a minority-majority district), I think the statistics bear out that it is now possible,’’ he said.

Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, asked staff if that was true.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t reviewed the statistics for that,’’ responded Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

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After the meeting Wednesday, Bracy met with the Senate lawyers and told reporters he was concerned that by rejecting the district that crosses the bay, it could hurt the ability of neighboring districts to elect Black candidates. On the other hand, he wondered, is there a configuration that could maximize Black voting strength?

“What constitutes diminishment?” he asked. “You can reduce the Black population in one district and those voters could still elect a Black candidate in another district. Then they can have have more power.”

Little public input

As legislators met in a special session this week, the Senate Reapportionment Committee held two subcommittee workshops to review four plans proposed by staff for both the Senate and congressional redistricting.

There was little public testimony about the proposals, except for Warren’s attempt to submit four alternative proposals, and the League of Women Voters of Florida raising concerns.

Facing little friction, the plans are expected to be recommended for approval by the full committee when it meets next month. A final map will then be approved by legislators in the regular 60-day session which begins in January.

Meanwhile, because the population in Southeast Florida didn’t grow as quickly as other parts of the state, the shifts are causing Senate Democrats to lose a seat, setting off a series of potential musical chairs among members.

In Miami-Dade, the Senate maps appear to eliminate a Black access seat that is currently held by Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat. The current District 38 is over 40 percent Black in the Democratic primary but under the new maps, the district is dismantled and the replacement, Senate District 36, no longer preserves the minority voting strength.

A 30-year dispute

The question of whether or not a minority-majority district needs to cross Tampa Bay has been an issue since 1992, when legislators first attempted to create districts designed to help elect Black candidates to the state Legislature and Congress.

In 2012, legislators drew the 14th congressional district as a minority district that stretched across Tampa Bay, linking communities in Tampa to those in St. Petersburg. They justified it by arguing the 14th district was a “coalition district” that was majority non-white.

But the Senate did not analyze the voting data to determine if the Black and Hispanic populations voted 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 that the district be redrawn.

This year, the Senate’s drafted congressional maps do not have the minority district in Tampa cross the bay, but the Senate maps for its own districts do include that feature.

Central to the issue of drawing minority-voting districts is the issue of whether the communities linked together actually vote cohesively. In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court held that voter cohesion was necessary for them to take race into account in drawing minority districts.

Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert and University of Florida political science professor, has analyzed the Senate draft maps and has questions about how far Senate staff has analyzed the voting patterns in the proposed Pinellas County District 24, which is adjacent to the proposed SD 19.

By keeping SD 19 in Hillsborough, he said, SD 24 comprises the remainder of the peninsula and “suddenly that district becomes a Democratic voting district,’’ he said.

If Senate leaders want to avoid violating the Fair District principles, which ban them from from protecting political parties, they must justify the voting patterns in the two districts.

“Is it being drawn to to further the electoral chances of minorities? Or is it packing in minorities above what’s needed to elect minorities? I don’t I don’t know the answer to those questions,’’ he said.

Sen. Danny Burgess, the Zephryhills Republican who chairs the Senate Legislative Reapportionment Committee, walked out of the meeting room immediately after it ended and avoided answering reporters’ questions.

Questions submitted to the spokesperson for Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, were not answered.