TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators struggled last week to draw a congressional district map that meets a court mandate, it became clear that what they would end up with would be far from perfect.
"Bring me a redistricting commission or something, for goodness sakes," exclaimed Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, as lawmakers convened for the second special session to revise a congressional redistricting plan that had been rejected by the court. "Bring me something that works!"
Redistricting reformers thought they had found a better way when they persuaded 63 percent of Florida's voters in 2010 to approve the "Fair District" amendments to the Florida Constitution that outlawed gerrymandering and banned lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.
But taking politics out of the most political of acts turned out not to be so easy.
Rather than start from scratch, legislators relied on the same assumptions built into previous redistricting maps. Court testimony revealed that GOP political operatives, many of them skilled map makers, were allowed to draw maps and pass them to legislative staff using fake emails and a shadow process.
The final product: a map of districts that elected 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats with only three districts being vigorously competitive. It also drew a lawsuit, from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals.
By a 5-2 vote, the Florida Supreme Court rejected the map and concluded the process was tainted by "improper political intent."
Now, lawmakers are in a second special session to redraw the congressional map for the third time.
So, up against this political angst, what does it take to create a politically unbiased map?
Experts who have led redistricting reform efforts across the country identify a variety of factors that create a fair map:
• Incumbents or partisans aren't given an inherent advantage.
• Geographic and ethnic groups are fairly represented.
• Districts are compact.
• Candidates are more likely to win in a general election than in a single-party primary.
Six states have their districts drawn by bipartisan panels or independent commissions, and Ohio has a proposal on its 2015 ballot to create an independent redistricting commission. In Arizona and California, a primary goal of the independent commissions is to create more competitive districts.
When districts are competitive, legislators are more responsive to voters, said Bertrall Ross, a law professor at the University of California. They are more inclined to "advance the interests of voters," he said.
Florida has 27 seats in Congress and has 415,883 more registered Democrats than Republicans. With a perfectly neutral map, either Republicans or Democrats would gain the same percentage of seats as the percentage of voters they turn out in any given election, experts say.
The congressional map drawn by the Florida Legislature was not entirely reflective of state voter turnout. In 2012, President Barack Obama narrowly won Florida, but he carried only 11 congressional districts, including two held by Republicans. His average victory margin in districts won by Democrats was 28 percentage points while in the 16 districts won by Republican Mitt Romney, Obama's average losing margin was 14 percentage points.
The numbers suggest that Florida legislators were able to concentrate Democrats into fewer districts and give Republicans the advantage for the remaining seats. They did it by using key pieces of the previous congressional map as the base of the new map.
"Once gerrymandered, always gerrymandered," said Richard Gunther, a political science professor at Ohio State University and an advocate for a redistricting initiative in that state.
The strategy was revealed in court documents obtained by the plaintiffs in a trial last year. Draft maps found on the computer of Republican political operative Marc Reichelderfer included features identical to draft maps the legislative staff produced, the records showed.
The first map Reichelderfer produced favored the election of 14 Democrats and 13 Republicans, said Dan Smith, professor of political science at the University of Florida, who was hired by the League of Women Voters to analyze the maps. He is no longer working for the plaintiffs.
Smith discovered that after building a base map that gave Democrats the advantage, Reichelderfer produced a series of maps that gradually increased Republican performance by concentrating more blacks, and more Democrats, into Congressional District 5, held by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonviille.
Brown's district stretches down the center of the state from Jacksonville to Seminole County and was created in 1992 by a federal court with the intention of concentrating black voters so they could elect an African American to Congress. Brown has held the seat since then.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and redistricting expert who was also hired by the plaintiffs as an adviser, considers Brown's district "the linchpin" to building any nonbiased or neutral map in Florida.
"Is it possible to create a 50/50 map in Florida? It is," he said. But dismantling the serpentine-shape of District 5 is key.
"You're erecting a fence down the middle of the state that means essentially that the other districts have to go around the fence — they can't go through it," he said.
In Central Florida — the area of the state where Democrat voter registration is growing fastest — isolating Democrats into a North-South district, dilutes the strength of Democrats in the Orlando region, he said.
When the Florida Supreme Court threw out the latest congressional map in July, it ordered the Legislature to dismantle District 5 and replace it with a district that stretches 200 miles across the top of the state from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
The GOP leaders in the Legislature have chastised the ruling as overreaching, and Brown has vowed to challenge the new version as a violation of the minority protections in the federal Voting Rights Act. But, Smith warns, until an election proves the new configuration won't elect a black candidate to office, she is unlikely to succeed.
Meanwhile, Smith says that the alternative "base map" produced by the Legislature's staff would replace District 5, now a majority-minority district, with a configuration that could result in two districts that elect minorities to Congress — one in the east-west district in North Florida and another in the Orlando region that could elect a black or Hispanic representative.
"It think its an interesting map," he said. "It's more competitive on the face, more compact and makes more sense geopolitically."
But for many redistricting experts, Florida's process is far from perfect.
"What this has revealed is the Legislature can't be trusted," said McDonald. He noted that Florida's redistricting reformers initially tried to create a commission in addition to adopting language banning political gerrymandering, but the Florida Supreme Court threw out the language as a violation of the Constitution's single-subject rule.
"They could put only one piece in place, but that piece has exposed the Legislature's bad behavior," he said. "The next piece may be to create an independent commission."
In states where redistricting commissions are in operation, the results have been notable.
Arizona adopted its redistricting commission in 2000 and has since had some of the most competitive congressional districts in the nation, McDonald said. In 2002 and 2012, the average margin of victory in Arizona's nine districts was among the lowest in the nation, and in 2014 two districts had margins of less than 5 percent.
In California, which first used an independent commission to draw congressional lines after the 2010 census, the result has been more competitive and more geographically compact districts, said Michael Li, a lawyer and redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
In 2012 and 2014, the margin of victory for 12 of California's 53 members of Congress was less than 10 percentage points. Before the commission, in 2008 and 2010, only five or six congressional districts were that competitive.
Li said the rise in competitive elections also has led to a change in the tone of politics in California.
"You have fewer extreme Republicans and more moderate Republicans than you had before," he said.
State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, wants to bring the redistricting commission idea to Florida. He has filed a bill (HB 21) that would create a nine-member redistricting commission that includes three third-party or no-party-affiliated voters, but excludes elected officials. The Legislature would have final approval of any maps.
But Jenne is not optimistic that Florida lawmakers will relinquish the redistricting reins, no matter how messy the recent experience has been.
"My bill will never get a hearing," he predicted last week. "Why? If I was allowed to have both hands on the wheel, I'm certainly not going to let go of it to let someone else drive the car."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.