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Proposed Florida House maps give GOP redistricting advantage

Democrats say the process so far lacks transparency.
On Monday, the House released its first set of redistricting maps, drawing criticism from Democratic leaders.
On Monday, the House released its first set of redistricting maps, drawing criticism from Democratic leaders. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Nov. 29, 2021
Updated Nov. 30, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-controlled Florida House on Monday released its first set of redistricting maps, and they were immediately criticized by elections experts for violating state redistricting rules and derided by Democrats as “a fully-baked cake” that lacked transparency.

The maps, which will be discussed in workshops Thursday of the House legislative and congressional redistricting subcommittees, were drawn by staff based on the Fair District standards of the Florida Constitution and court precedent, said House Redistricting Chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, in a memo to House members.

But House Democrats criticized the process, saying that there has been little public input with no public hearings as the maps were developed by staff behind closed doors.

“What we’re seeing is basically a product that is virtually done,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood. “It does show you how much the lack of transparency in this process, when basically a fully-baked cake comes out of the oven and no one has any idea how we got there — and certainly the public has no idea. A lot of this work is going to be done behind closed doors.”

Fearful of a lawsuit that could lead to a court ruling that invalidates their maps, the GOP leaders in the House and Senate have been unwilling to comment on any criticism of their maps, preferring to adhere to pre-written statements before and after each public meeting.

The stakes are high. Because of its population growth, Florida gains a 28th congressional district and national Republicans see Florida, with its GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor, as one of the best opportunities to gain seats in Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. In 2015, after three years of lawsuits, the court ordered legislators to adopt new maps for the state Senate and congressional districts.

Unlike the proposed Senate maps, which were widely viewed by redistricting analysts as a fair attempt to redistrict the state and not as an attempt at preserving partisan advantage, the House maps released Monday would disadvantage more Democrats and advantage more Republicans.

Under the Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution, legislators are barred from reapportioning legislative and congressional districts to advantage any incumbent or political party or to diminish minority voting access.

Under the House’s two proposed congressional maps, Republicans would have a 17-11 advantage, a one-seat gain over the current 16-11 split.

A Central Florida issue

One proposed map, C8001, makes dramatic changes to the Central Florida district of Democrat U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy by making it less likely for her to get re-elected while appearing to favor her challenger, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, said Matt Isbell, a Tallahassee-based redistricting expert who runs the MCI Maps website.

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“This is Sabatini’s dream plan,’’ he said. The map is “a much more aggressive gerrymander and definitely more in line with what the national Republican Party would like to see.”

The other House-drawn congressional map, C8003, keeps a Black-majority district in Hillsborough County and does not cross Tampa Bay as C8001 does. That makes proposed Congressional District 13 more Democratic, and reduces the chance that neighboring Congressional District 15 could be won by a Democrat, Isbell said.

An image of a redistricting map dubbed C8003 drawn by staffers in the Florida House. It proposes keeping a Black-majority district in Hillsborough County and does not cross Tampa Bay as does another map, C8001. It would make Congressional District 13 in Pinellas County more Democratic and reduce the chance that District 15 in Hillsborough could be won by a Democrat, according to redistricting expert Matt Isbell.
An image of a redistricting map dubbed C8003 drawn by staffers in the Florida House. It proposes keeping a Black-majority district in Hillsborough County and does not cross Tampa Bay as does another map, C8001. It would make Congressional District 13 in Pinellas County more Democratic and reduce the chance that District 15 in Hillsborough could be won by a Democrat, according to redistricting expert Matt Isbell. [ Florida House of Representatives ]

By contrast, the Senate congressional draft maps appear to preserve much of the current congressional map, giving Republicans 14 reliable seats, Democrats eight reliable seats and six highly competitive seats, including the new district (one more than the current map).

In Tampa Bay, for example, the Senate proposals show that Biden could win three seats in Tampa while the House proposals show that Biden would only win two of the districts, Isbell said.

“This isn’t the first time that the House and Senate have disagreed on congressional maps,’’ he said. “That’s actually pretty common in our redistricting history. But then the other question is, was the idea to give some nicer looking maps first and release a bunch of garbage later or will there be a showdown on this?”

Who draws which maps?

The House and Senate have a tacit agreement to allow the Senate to draw its redistricting map and the House to draw its maps. By contrast, the congressional map must be agreed upon by both the House and Senate, and approved by the governor. While experts contend that the staff-drawn Senate map gives Republicans more of an advantage, it was also not viewed as aggressively partisan.

By contrast, the staff-drawn House map released Monday strengthens the GOP advantage throughout the state by reducing Democratic access in Tampa, Isbell said. It divides Tallahassee into three state House districts, reduces access to Black-majority districts by establishing a minimum of 50 percent Black population, and it eliminates one of Miami-Dade County’s three Hispanic-majority districts.

Under the proposed House maps, Republican Rep. Tom Fabricio of Miramar appears to be merged into the same district as Rep. David Borrero of Sweetwater.

What obligation do legislators have to draw minority-access districts?

It is an issue raised by many experts, including Isbell, University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, and the League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon. Scoon has asked legislators to conduct a voting analysis to see whether districts that traditionally perform Democratic and are majority Black, majority Hispanic or majority minority, effectively operate as a minority access seat.

Given those conditions, the experts have asked: Should legislators attempt to draw additional minority seats when they can or should they be allowed to pack minorities into districts and thereby “bleach” surrounding districts to advantage Republicans?

“By saying, it has to be 50 percent Black, you’re effectively minimizing the number of minority seats, especially with the African American population, which are often Democratic seats,’’ Isbell said.

Also on Monday, the Senate subcommittees on legislative and congressional reapportionment met briefly to discuss new maps proposed by staff to address minor boundary adjustments. Few questions were asked and little discussion occurred.

Scoon, of the League of Women Voters, repeated a request for the Senate to release the data it is using to analyze the voting performance of its maps. The Senate hired Florida State University to compile the data and, although it is a public record, the Senate has declined to make the data set available to the public and requires the public to use it only when using the Legislature’s redistricting software.

“All the data that we use to analyze our plans, conduct a functional analysis, review the compactness, the boundary analysis scores, all of that is built into the redistricting application,’’ said Jay Ferrin, staff director of the Senate Redistricting Committee. “So that’s accessible to anyone that wants to get in there and look at the districts.”