House redistricting chair defends early maps as legislators raise questions

Rep. Tyler Sirois blasts “self-anointed, partisan political class,” saying their comments are premature.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which is nonpartisan and independent, gave the proposed House maps a grade of "F for partisan fairness."
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which is nonpartisan and independent, gave the proposed House maps a grade of "F for partisan fairness." [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Dec. 3, 2021|Updated Dec. 3, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House redistricting leaders faced a steady stream of questions Thursday from members of both parties as they unveiled details about two staff-drawn proposals that give an advantage to Republicans in the high-stakes reapportionment of congressional districts.

But first Rep. Tyler Sirois, a Merritt Island Republican and chair of the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, blasted criticism of the maps.

“Once our maps were released, the self-anointed, partisan political class jumped to the headlines to give their commentary as soon as possible without even reserving the opportunity for explanation or to observe this committee meeting today,’’ he said in a statement at the onset of the meeting.

“External groups are judging us on the very thing we cannot evaluate, consider or even know,’’ he said. “I asked you to divest yourself from those external groups and their partisan narratives, which are aimed at imputing their political ambitions into your decision making.”

Those external groups include the nonpartisan, independent Princeton Gerrymandering Project and Five Thirty Eight, which analyzed the House maps released on Monday and concluded they give Republicans a partisan advantage.

Five Thirty Eight concluded that the House proposals are “5 points more Republican-leaning than the state as a whole.” While the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave House C8001 and C8003 a grade of “F for partisan fairness.”

Their assessment was echoed by analysts in Florida, including Matt Isbell, a redistricting expert working with the Democrat-leaning People Over Profits. He called C8001 “a much more aggressive gerrymander and definitely more in line with what the national Republican Party would like to see.”

The analysts had done what House and Senate leaders won’t do publicly: analyze the maps to see how they would perform politically.

But Sirois said that the outside analysts don’t take into consideration the challenges facing Florida map-drawers, who must abide by the Fair Districts standards of the Florida Constitution. Those standards bar legislators from reapportioning legislative and congressional districts to advantage any incumbent or political party or to diminish minority voting access.

“The partisan narratives and rhetoric will not have a place in this committee process as legislators and constitutional officers were held to a high standard,’’ he said. “And I do not intend on letting us waver from that high bar.”

Overshadowing this redistricting cycle is the fear that a lawsuit challenging the maps could lead to a court ruling that invalidates the legislatively drawn maps, as happened in 2012-2015.

“Redistricting means change for all members,’’ Sirois warned in his statement. “The movement of district lines may have the effect of pairing a member with a fellow incumbent or changing your district to where you no longer reside within the new boundaries.”

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Reflective of the cautious approach, House and Senate leaders have decided not to conduct public hearings to elicit public commentary about their map-making process. GOP leaders in the Senate have been reluctant to answer detailed questions posed by reporters about the decision-making that went on behind the scenes that have led to their maps.

And on Thursday, House leaders faced similar questions from their own members.

Democrats complained about being shut out of the process so far, and asked what they can expect next from GOP leaders who are controlling the process. Republicans and Democrats asked why the draft maps split up counties like Hillsborough and attempted to connect a Black-majority district in Tampa Bay by linking two communities across the water.

“I heard geographical boundaries come up. How did you make the decision on which you would prioritize?’’ asked Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, exploring how they decided to prioritize geographical boundary lines over keeping districts compact.

For example, she said, there are some areas where “very small cities are broken up and other areas where large cities weren’t broken up.”

Sirois said the map demonstrates competing priorities, but didn’t detail how choices were made. He added that the draft maps are simply a starting point.

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said she was disappointed that members of the committee “didn’t participate more in the creation of the map or the policy decisions and the methodology behind how all of this was going to be drawn.”

She asked whether staff took into consideration the public input on the Legislature’s redistricting website.

Sirois said the goal of the meeting was to give lawmakers the chance to learn about how maps could be drawn and it was not to be considered the final product.

“I feel comfortable that there’s sufficient opportunity for there to be plenty of public input as we move forward,’’ he said.

Rep. Andrew Learned, a Brandon Democrat, asked why the House map included a Black majority district that crosses Tampa Bay.

By law, the district must be protected from diminishing the opportunity for Black voters to elect candidates of their choice, but one of the House maps proposes linking voters in Hillsborough County with those in Pinellas County by crossing the water.

“Crossing a body of water meets the definition of contiguous. Is that correct?,’’ Learned asked.

Staff director Leda Kelly said it was.

Learned and Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican, asked why the House maps divide Hillsborough County into either four or six different districts.

Sirois said it was a policy decision but noted that every change has a ripple effect on other districts.

Staff analyst Jason Poreda said the committee considered several options but landed on this configuration. He said the subcommittee can recommend that be changed in the future so that all counties of similar size face similar divisions.

The House Legislative Redistricting Committee will hold a workshop Friday on its maps.