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Florida Senate’s new redistricting maps advance with speed, little comment

Both versions of the Senate’s congressional maps split Pinellas County between two districts.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, proposed an alternative map that would not have congressional districts split Pinellas County.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, proposed an alternative map that would not have congressional districts split Pinellas County.
Published Jan. 11|Updated Jan. 11

TALLAHASSEE — With almost no public testimony, two bipartisan Senate subcommittees advanced a total of four redistricting maps Monday, two for the state Senate and two for Congress, teeing up the proposals for a vote of the full committee on Thursday.

The unprecedented speed with which the Senate has advanced its maps as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process reflects the lack of opposition from Democrats, the desire by Senate Republican leaders to avoid a court challenge, and the effectiveness with which they have kept public comments and questions at bay.

Only one member of the public spoke at each of the meetings on Monday, and she came with a warning: The maps may not do enough to protect minority voting strength.

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which 10 years ago led the coalition of groups that successfully challenged the redistricting maps, told the Senate Subcommittee on Legislative Reapportionment that the Senate maps appear to diminish what the courts have said is a top priority.

A decade ago, Florida courts said that “Tier Two” standards, which include keeping cities and counties together and districts compact, are not as important and mandatory as the “Tier One” priority — adhering to the federal Voting Rights Act requirements that racial and language minorities are allowed to elect their representatives.

“You must essentially give racial minorities and language minorities every opportunity to select a representative of their choice, and that means you need to maximize that,” said Scoon, who is a civil rights attorney in Panama City. “And I just haven’t heard a lot of discussion about maximizing that compliance.”

Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican and chairperson of the Senate Subcommittee on Legislative Reapportionment, did not respond to Scoon’s critique but moved ahead with a vote for the subcommittee to approve two maps: S 8046 and S 8050.

Earlier, the Senate Subcommittee on Congressional Reapportionment advanced two of its proposals: S 8038 and S 8040. According to a Times/Herald analysis, both congressional maps would give Republicans a 16 to 12 advantage over Democrats in the congressional delegation, and both would create a new Republican-leaning competitive district in Central Florida.

Although the public was invited to submit maps and provide feedback on the House and Senate’s joint redistricting website, there was no indication from senators or their staff that the submissions had been reviewed and the pages of public comment considered.

It may not matter. Earlier maps, which formed the baseline of the map approved Monday by the Senate legislative and congressional reapportionment subcommittees, have been graded as relatively fair by both Democratic analysts and independent redistricting watchdogs.

Splitting Pinellas

Both versions of the Senate’s congressional maps split Pinellas County between two districts, 13 and 14.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, proposed an alternative map that would remove that split and have each district be kept separately in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

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“The intent … is to make a recognizable Tampa area, instead of splitting Tampa Bay,” he said.

Rouson said he worked with Senate staffers to draft the maps, which differ from the Senate’s maps only in Tampa Bay.

“We’ve heard today the maps submitted by staff, all of them seek to have the highest number of cities and counties kept whole,” Rouson said. “This map keeps all of the 24 cities in Pinellas County whole, or at least 98 percent whole. The map also keeps 100 percent of district 14 in Hillsborough and most of the city of Tampa, which is about 88 percent.”

Related: Florida Senate maps of Tampa Bay district draw complaints from experts

However, committee chairperson Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, pushed back against his proposal, saying it would cause proposed District 15, mostly east Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and District 12, mostly Pasco and northern Pinellas counties, to be less compact.

Rouson said afterward that he may try again to get his design for Tampa Bay’s districts included.

“I was not expecting huge support,” he said. “Staff had done a pretty good job already in drawing what they submitted, and I just tried to tweak it a little bit.”

Questioning minority protection

The Legislature is using the current maps as its benchmark to ensure it protects the current minority districts. But, Scoon said, there has been no attempt by Senate staff to expand the number of minority districts in the state Senate map or do a racial voting analysis to determine whether some parts of the state could justify a protected district.

The Senate analysis, for example, does not consider voter turnout in primaries, only general elections, which often do not matter in Democratic-heavy Black districts. The Senate also does not consider voting patterns by district and precinct-level data, the kind of data needed to determine how well a district can perform to protect minority voting strength.

“The Legislature is using a benchmark that is looking back at 2010 but by deliberating not doing this analysis, they don’t know what the population today can do,” Scoon said after the meeting. “If you are trying to give equal opportunity for minorities to select a representative of their choice, then when there is an opportunity you must give it to them.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who is running for Congress, picked up on Scoon’s question of whether the Senate was doing all it could to maximize minority voting strength.

He asked Senate staff to attempt to draw a Black-majority Senate District 19 in its state Senate map that keeps communities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties from being split across Tampa Bay.

Burgess said that the staff tried and concluded “there’s no way to make that work practically” because it would disenfranchise voters in Pinellas County that have had a Black person representing them for 30 years.

But Bracy pressed him for data to make his case. Staff director Jay Ferrin responded that a district that didn’t link the two communities across the bay would disenfranchise Black voters in Pinellas County because the percent of Black voters would drop from about 33 percent to 30 percent.

However, Ferrin did not mention that in November, Nicholas Warren, a redistricting expert who worked for the Florida Supreme Court during the last round of redistricting, submitted an alternative map of the Tampa Bay area that would have created a Senate District 19 that stays within Hillsborough County. His proposal estimates that 49.9 percent of Democratic primary voters from 2016-2020 were Black, while under the current map the percentage is 49.7 percent.

Rather than consider that proposal, the Senate blasted Warren and accused him of violating Senate rules. The Senate also ordered senators to ignore Warren’s map submission.

By the end of the meeting Monday, Bracy said he agreed with Scoon but was resigned to the fact that he couldn’t persuade Senate GOP leaders to accept any changes.

“The spokesperson for the League of Women Voters makes an excellent point that Tier One should trump all the other tiers,” he said. “In that instance, I’m not sure we did that.”

He added: “That’s neither here nor there. We got the maps we got.”

Bereft of public comment

The last time lawmakers redrew the state’s congressional and legislative boundaries, lawmakers toured the state seeking input from Floridians about how they’d like their districts redrawn but then ultimately let political operatives design the districts.

This time, the redistricting process has been largely bereft of public comment or participation. The committee meetings in Tallahassee are usually empty.

Besides Scoon, the only other person who has appeared to speak during the Senate’s public comment period was Warren.

In the House, the redistricting committee last week scheduled two meetings for Tuesday to elicit public testimony on its proposed maps.

The short notice and the lack of public participation drew criticism on Monday from the Fair Districts Coalition, which includes 11 left-leaning voter advocacy groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida Conservation Voters.

In a letter to the House Redistricting Committee chairperson, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, the coalition blasted the scheduled Tuesday hearing, noting:

  • That notice of this week’s meetings were issued less than a week in advance.
  • The meeting was scheduled on a workday afternoon in Tallahassee during the largest coronavirus surge in the state’s history with no opportunity for the public to appear virtually.
  • And the two redistricting meetings were scheduled at the same time, making it difficult or impossible for someone to attend both.

“This schedule and geographical limitation — not to speak of the health risks — show a grave lack of respect for public participation,” the letter states.

• • •

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