TALLAHASSEE — After years of litigation and bitter opposition from the Republican-led Legislature, the coalition of voter advocacy groups that brought the state its redistricting standards has called a truce.
FairDistricts Now, and its consortium of voting advocates, will not oppose the House and Senate redistricting maps that were passed by the Florida Legislature two weeks ago, setting the stage for the plans to serve as the political boundaries for the 120-member House and 40-member Senate for the next decade.
“Something happened yesterday that has not ever happened before,” said Ellen Freidin, chief executive officer of FairDistricts Now, a nonpartisan organization that worked to pass the 2010 constitutional amendment to impose new redistricting standards in Florida. “The Legislature’s proposed state House and Senate redistricting maps were sent to the Florida Supreme Court for their automatic facial review and no one challenged them.”
Both the House and Senate maps give Democrats the opportunity to pick up seats in the Republican-controlled chambers. The Senate map gives Republicans a likely 23-17 advantage over Democrats in the 40-member chamber, one more for Democrats than currently. The House map gives Republicans a 71-49 advantage in the 120-member House, seven more than Democrats have now.
Under Florida law, the Florida Supreme Court must conduct a review of the maps to make sure they comply with the FairDistricts amendments adopted by voters in 2010. The amendments require legislators to draw maps that do not favor incumbents or political parties and protect minority voting strength.
The deadline for any organization opposed to the plan to file a challenge was Monday at midnight. No lawsuits were filed, and on Tuesday the court waived oral arguments.
The court has until March 9 to approve or reject the maps and, unless the court finds reason to object to them, they are expected to be the districts candidates will use when qualifying in June for House and Senate elections.
Approval by the court, however, does not mean there may not be a legal challenge on constitutional grounds after the maps become law, said Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat who served as the Democrats’ ranking member on the House Redistricting Committee and voted against the maps.
“If the House map is thrown out for being constitutionally deficient under FairDistricts, or because it violates the Voting Rights Act, it will be after a full trial with all the facts in the sunshine,” he said in a statement late Tuesday. “Filing in the Supreme Court proceeding would only have delayed proceedings and slowed down access to a trial.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, did not comment on the development, but House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, took a victory lap.
“Not a single group, not a single individual, challenged a single House district in the Florida Supreme Court,” he said after the House finished debate on its budget and a bill to limit abortions. “Not one solitary argument was presented to challenge our maps, and I would note that the court are the final arbiters of whether our maps comply with Article III, Section 21, of the Florida Constitution.”
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Sprowls chided Democrats for what he called “disturbing insinuations ... that called into question the integrity” of legislators and staff and for calling the proposal “wildly unconstitutional.” He said he hoped that “they will acknowledge the mistake that they made.”
It is a reversal in fortune from a decade ago. In 2012, a coalition of Democratic-leaning voting rights groups, led by the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued on behalf of several individual voters who accused lawmakers of unfairly drawing maps that protected incumbent lawmakers and Republicans.
For the next three years, lawmakers battled over whether legislators could be put under oath to discuss the maps and whether the emails of Republican political operatives working with the House and Senate leaders could be made part of the record.
The Florida Supreme Court made history in 2014 when it ruled that legislators could be deposed in the case, and the documents from the operatives would have to be turned over.
In the files turned over to the court, data sleuths working for the plaintiffs groups found millions of census blocks that proved the Legislature’s organized conspiracy. The data and email records demonstrated that the Legislature had selectively shed and added populations to congressional districts to improve the performance for incumbent candidates, a violation of the FairDistrict provisions.
In July 2015, the Florida Supreme Court pointed to “circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Legislature and the consultants” and ruled 5-2 that lawmakers were guilty of violating the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution. The landmark ruling declared the entire process had been “tainted with improper political intent” and ordered the Legislature to redraw the congressional map.
The verdict was so broad, however, that rather than continue the legal fight over the state Senate map, legislators admitted they also had violated the Constitution when they drew the Senate redistricting plan in 2012. Lawmakers scheduled a special session and revised both maps.
The legal battle cost Florida taxpayers more than $11 million and left legislators with a blemished record as they began the process again last year.
In an effort to “take steps against the shadow process” of 10 years ago, the House and Senate redistricting chairpersons in September announced new rules intended to keep political operatives out. The measures, however, also worked to keep the public at a distance.
The rules were criticized by Freidin and Democratic legislators, but Republican leaders refused to alter them. Freidin concluded Tuesday that the redistricting standards worked as intended.
“Throughout this year’s redistricting process legislators have consistently expressed a desire to follow the FairDistricts amendments and to avoid the debacle of the last cycle when they were humiliated in court for willfully defying the constitutional mandates,” Freidin said in a statement. “They rightly believed that if they followed the FairDistricts provisions and case law interpreting them, they would avoid challenges.”
Geller, however, said that he believes the reason there were no briefs filed before the court is because the court’s initial review is limited and under a compressed timeline.
“If anyone wants to know where we stand on the maps, they have only to look at the extensive record we developed in committees and on the House floor to see our concerns about minority voter packing and cracking, lack of language minority voter protection, and indeed the entire redistricting process in the House,” he said.
Freidin also warned lawmakers that the coast is not yet clear as it relates to the congressional map. The Senate has approved its map, but the House Redistricting Subcommittee is scheduled to take up its congressional plan on Friday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who holds veto power over the congressional map, has urged lawmakers to produce a more partisan map than the one advanced by the Senate. His lawyer, Ryan Newman, on Monday submitted a second congressional map that, like the first one submitted in January, dismantles Black majority districts to give Republicans an 18-10 partisan advantage.
Freidin warned that if legislators adopt the governor’s approach, it could lead to legal trouble.
“While the Senate has also passed a congressional map that appears to be reasonably compliant with the law, the map moving forward in the House eliminates a minority access district that the Senate rightly identifies as being protected,” Freidin said Tuesday.
“With Gov. DeSantis taking the unprecedented action of seeking permission from the Florida Supreme Court to obliterate minority seats and threatening a veto to exert influence over Senate and House negotiations, Florida voters must remain vigilant and vocal in their demand for fair representation.”
Times/Herald staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.
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