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Time Running Out for Fla. Lawmakers to Draw Fair Congressional Map

Florida’s state legislators meeting in a special session have until noon on Friday, August 21, to agree to a new map for the state’s 27 congressional districts. Two court rulings – one from 2014 and one from 2015 – found fault with the legislature’s congressional maps, with judges finding them to be in violation of the Fair Districts Amendment.

In 2010, 63 percent of Florida voters approved ballot measures to tackle gerrymandering through constitutional amendments. Amendment 5 amended the practice for redrawing state legislative boundaries, and Amendment 6 amended the practice for redrawing congressional boundaries.

While the amendments did not turn over redistricting to an independent commission – as has occurred in states like Arizona and California – they did set criteria for how the maps are to be drawn by the legislature.

Newly drawn districts must be contiguous and cannot “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.” They also must be feasibly compact, nearly equal in size, and drawn so as not to “deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.”

Newly drawn districts must be contiguous and cannot 'favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.'
In early 2012, the Republican legislature approved a new congressional map – one that included two new districts to account for the state’s population growth per the 2010 Census. That November, Floridians voted to send 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats to the House.

The map faced a legal challenge in 2012, and in 2014, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that two congressional districts in particular were invalid.

One of these was District 5, a slender, jagged, snake-shaped district located in the northwest sector of the state. It was originally created in 1992 to help blacks in the state elect a member of their own race and is now represented by Democrat Corinne Brown.

Judge Lewis found that the district was “bizarrely shaped” and egregiously non-compact, and thus unconstitutional. He ordered the legislature to redraw the district.

The judge also ordered lawmakers to redraw District 10, which he believed was constructed to benefit the Republican Party. According to redistricting experts, the boundary between Districts 5 and 10 could have been drawn in a way to preserve District 5 as a minority-strong district while also making it more likely that an African-American would be elected in District 10.

In 2012, incumbent Republican Daniel Webster narrowly defeated Val Demings, a black female, in District 10.

Though Judge Lewis later approved the revisions to these two districts, his finding was overruled in July 2015, when Florida’s Supreme Court found fault with eight districts, including District 5, and ordered them to be redrawn.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court criticized the secretive nature of the redistricting process. Justice Barbara Pariente, who penned the majority opinion in the 5-2 decision, noted that because “many of the e-mails were deleted or destroyed, we still may have only a partial picture of the behind-the-scenes political tactics.”

This finding contradicted the promise from 2012 that the process would be “the most open and transparent in Florida’s history.”

In the proceedings, the judges discovered that lawmakers and their staffers had regularly communicated with Republican consultants regarding redistricting and, to an extent, effectively outsourced this public responsibility to partisan operatives who “hijacked” the process.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court criticized the secretive nature of the redistricting process.
For instance, in one communication, Republican strategist Marc Reichelderfer informed Kirk Pepper, an aide to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, that Rep. Webster’s district was “a bit messed up,” to which Pepper replied, “[p]erformance or geography?”

Reichelderfer testified that in his communications, “performance” often referred to how well Republicans would fare politically.

Throughout the redistricting process, Reichelderfer and other consultants privately received many draft maps and sent back advice and suggested revisions. Some of these revisions were included in the final 2012 redistricting plan and improved Republicans’ electoral performance.

For example, the extension of District 14 into territory previously a part of District 13 made the latter less safe for Democrats. Also, when the state Senate released a proposed map that left the city of Homestead whole, Republican strategist Frank Terraferma noted that District 26 looked “pretty weak” and agreed with consultant Rich Heffley that the House needed to make some corrections. In the final plan, Homestead was split between Districts 26 and 27, turning one Republican and one Democratic district into two Republican-leaning districts.

In one e-mail, Speaker Cannon wrote to Reichelderfer, “we are in fine shape” so long as “the Senate accommodates the concerns that you and Rich identified in the map that they put out tomorrow.”

Yet Republicans were not the only ones accused of partisan shenanigans.

Court documents show that the plaintiffs who challenged the 2012 map proposed an alternative map that was the product of cooperation between Democratic groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – whose goal is to get Democrats elected to office, and the National Committee for an Effective Congress – a Democratic redistricting group.

Republican lawmakers, feeling pressured to produce an uncontroversial map by the end of the week, have expressed concern that the base map used as the starting point in the special session contains features from this alternative, partisan-tinged map – a map the judges praised in their rulings.

On Monday, August 17, the House and Senate showed signs of division over the layout of the new congressional map – a common occurrence in Florida’s legislature this year, according to the Miami Herald.

One state representative, Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach), has proposed to relieve the legislature of redistricting all together. He recently filed HB 21, which would turn redistricting over to an independent commission. Rep. Jenne does not expect to get a hearing on this bill.

Image: Florida State Capitol building / Credit: Joseph Sohm / shutterstock.com