Florida Redistricting Battles Heat-Up

With a new constitutional mandate to draw fairer legislative and congressional districts, Florida lawmakers this week are launching a 26-stop road show to begin the once-a-decade chore of rejiggering the state’s political lines.

Florida’s redistricting battle is already littered with litigation. And before it culminates with new maps in March, lawmakers on both sides are poised for a charged battle over racial and ethnic divides, not to mention partisan control of the Florida Legislature and Congress.

In the past decade, Florida’s population swelled to 18.8 million, up by 17.6 percent or nearly 3 million. These additional people must be evenly apportioned among 120 state House and 40 Senate districts — and two new congressional districts that will be added to the current 25 — to ensure the 14th Amendment protection of “one person, one vote.”

Hispanics have grown to 22.5 percent of the population — surpassing blacks as the state’s largest minority group. At the same time, many districts previously engineered to elect minorities have become too small, in part because South Florida counties haven’t grown as rapidly as those in Central and Southwest Florida.

Of the five congressional districts that have grown the least since 2000, three elect the state’s only black members of Congress. Two of the five slowest-growing state Senate districts are majority African-American. And out of the 30 slowest-growing House districts, one-third are so-called “minority-majority” seats.

Meanwhile, explosive Hispanic growth in Central Florida — which has only one elected Hispanic legislator — will intensify pressure to draw districts more hospitable to Hispanic candidates.

And finally, lawmakers must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which in practice prohibits Florida from redrawing the maps in a manner that limits minority groups from electing politicians of their choice.

But unlike previous rounds of redistricting, voters have mandated that lawmakers take politics and self-interest out of the equation.

Last year, Florida voters adopted the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments requiring that congressional and legislative districts be drawn more compactly, following existing city and county boundaries where feasible — and without the intent to help incumbents or political parties.

Supporters said the aim was clear: stop the decades-old practice of gerrymandering political boundaries to prop up the party in power.

They argue Florida politicians have shoehorned minorities — who tend to vote Democratic — into a handful of urban districts so that surrounding suburban districts are overwhelmingly white — and Republican. Exhibit A: Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s nine-county district, which encompasses pockets of black voters inJacksonville, Gainesville, Sanford andOrlando.

But the mechanics of enforcing Fair Districts are problematic.

Republican legislative leaders maintain the amendments impose contradictory and mutually exclusive requirements.

How can new maps be drawn, they argue, without helping or hurting an incumbent or party, when any changes shifting district lines will do just that?

“Aside from whether you agree with the alleged policy goals, the standards are in inherent conflict,” said Republican consultant Rich Heffley, who has worked on Florida redistricting efforts for the past two decades. “They are not clear; they are not defined.”

But the stakes are.

The Democratic Party, relegated to a back-bench distraction in Tallahassee, threw its full-throated support behind Fair Districts last year in hopes of winning a chance to draw more-competitive seats. Republicans outnumber Democrats 81 to 39 in the Florida House and 28 to 12 in the Senate, even though registered Democrats outnumber GOP voters. Democrats failed to even field candidates in dozens of legislative races last year.

In addition, Florida will pick up two new congressional seats in 2012 — Republicans now control the delegation, 19 to 6 — and with the U.S. House narrowly divided, pressure will come from the national political parties to draw partisan-tilted districts.

Florida House and Senate leaders have already instructed their members to zip their lips during public hearings this summer. House Redistricting Committee Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told lawmakers last month not to ask questions about their own districts during their statewide round of public hearings for fear of creating fodder for lawsuits.

“We will not be using politics or political agendas to draw maps in the state of Florida,” Weatherford said. “What I’m trying to explain to our members is, this should not be a place for political gain or political aspirations.”

House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, went a step further, directing his caucus not to use public computers to draw maps with the Legislature’s redistricting software.

“There will be lawsuits,” he warned.

This mandate to keep quiet — plus lawmakers’ decision not to release even tentative new maps until early next year — prompted backers of Fair Districts to denounce the upcoming hearings as a “charade.” In a letter to legislative leaders, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of Women Voters and Democracia complained: “An order to remain silent creates the impression that there is something to hide. We urge you to reconsider this gag order and encourage a productive give-and-take at each of the hearings.”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders think they’ve already gotten tacit permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to draw minority districts much as they have in the past.

In a March 29 letter to the Justice Department requesting “pre-clearance” of the amendments, they argued that lawmakers should be allowed to “downplay geometric compactness and breach political and geographical boundaries to create districts in which minority-preferred candidates had an opportunity to be elected.”

The Justice Department’s May 31 response said succinctly that Justice “does not interpose any objection to the specified changes.” Republicans took that as tacit acceptance of their argument.

“The approval of the pre-clearance application shows that they do believe that to protect minority districts it is important from a legal standpoint that we continue to follow those guidelines,” Weatherford said.

But critics argue that would sanction a business-as-usual approach to drawing every district. Once central cities and urban cores are carved up to create minority districts, the surrounding suburbs will inevitably fall into the same jigsaw-puzzle mold.

Democrats say they plan to fight any attempt to use minority access as a ruse to maintain large GOP majorities in the new maps.

“If that’s the game they’re going to play, then I look forward to the outcome of that game,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation lawyer and redistricting point man for his caucus.

But even before lawmakers draw their first maps, a federal judge in Miami will have to rule in a challenge to the amendments filed by Brown and fellow U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. Their suit, joined by House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, argues that the reforms will dilute minority-voting strength.

No one thinks that will be the last lawsuit; indeed, lawmakers have set aside $30 million to be used in part to defend the new maps in court.

“It all works up until the point where there’s a map,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale. “Once there’s a map, personal interests come into play.”