Florida redistricting process moves slowly, but still deals Democrats setbacks

John Kennedy
Once redistricting maps emerge, all eyes will be on proposed new House, Senate and congressional boundaries.

TALLAHASSEE – In the first month of Florida lawmakers taking initial steps toward redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, Democrats and allied groups have already lost early political skirmishes.

And ruling Republicans haven’t even proposed a map yet – which potentially could spell even more trouble for the state’s outnumbered Democratic lawmakers.

So far, Democrats failed to gain support for repeated calls to hold some kind of public hearings before maps are crafted. A decade ago, Republican leaders devoted four months to more than two dozen such hearings – but now say a pandemic-related time crunch makes a road show impossible.

Earlier this week, in another setback for Democratic allies, Senate Redistricting Chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, ordered committee staff to begin work on their first maps – “without regard to the preservation of existing district boundaries.”

A coalition led by organizers of the voter-approved Fair Districts amendments in the state constitution had urged lawmakers to use current, court-drawn congressional and state Senate districts as a base, lessening the scope of change during the redrawing of new maps.

Rodrigues, though, defended his approach, saying it will assure that maps don’t “favor or disfavor an incumbent,” which is prohibited by the state constitution.

“But keeping some continuity with districts isn’t a bad thing,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic data consultant. “Not every district needs a complete re-setting every 10 years.”

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Redistricting a decade ago plunged the state into three years of lawsuits, leaving little trust between Republicans and Democrats in the latest work that will shape the balance of power for years to come in the nation’s biggest presidential toss-up state.

Rodrigues and his House counterpart, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, vow they will follow constitutional standards this time around – unlike Republican leaders in 2012, whose congressional and state Senate districts were found to violate the Fair Districts amendments, which bar districts from being drawn to favor a political party or incumbent.

Costly legal fight last time

After a fierce and expensive courtroom fight – which cost taxpayers $11 million in legal fees – courts in 2015 drew the congressional and Senate district boundaries now used, while the House map approved by lawmakers in 2012 survived unchallenged.

This time around, despite deadline pressure, redistricting committees have spent the opening three rounds of hearings conducting tutorials on the once-a-decade process, which rebalances district populations and is needed after the U.S. Census reveals how communities have shifted.

The pace suggests Republicans are in no hurry to finalize new House, Senate and congressional maps early in the legislative session, which begins in January. 

Democrats are almost certain to challenge in court whatever boundaries Republicans endorse. But late-in-session approval could increase odds that the GOP-crafted lines are allowed to stand – at least for the critical, 2022 presidential midterm elections.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn March 11.

Still, early approval also is no guarantee that Democrats will gain better districts from a court than from Republicans in command of the Legislature. A decade ago, the Legislature approved its maps early – only a few weeks into the 2012 session.

Within another few weeks, lawmakers were ordered back into a special session to redraw Senate boundaries, struck down by the state Supreme Court, making them slightly less-Republican leaning.

GOP-drawn maps used

But while the congressional map later also was rejected by a state court, boundaries drawn by Republican lawmakers were used for the 2012 and 2014 elections

For Republicans nationally, that kind of timetable next year could be a win.

With several political toss-up districts out of the state’s 27 congressional seats, Florida is viewed as pivotal to Republican hopes of winning back control of Congress next year.

There are only 50 swing districts in the country – seats which President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump carried last fall by 5 percentage points or less.

Florida has two of these swing seats, now held by U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, who is running for governor, and Miami Republican U.S.  Rep. Maria Salazar, and are both likely to gain Republican voters once lawmakers start redrawing boundaries.

Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez’s district, including South Miami and the Keys, is just barely outside the swing category, carried by Trump by 5.5 percentage points. His seat, too, is expected to be fortified with Republican voters.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat, is in a safer Democratic district, but is widely viewed as a target for Republican takeover. Her Central Florida seat also could gain an infusion of GOP voters once maps are rolled out.

Florida is gaining an additional seat in Congress – bringing its total to 28 – because of population gains. And the GOP is eager to increase its 16 seats in the state’s congressional delegation, with the flipping of only a handful of Democratic-held seats giving Republicans control of the U.S. House next year.

Maps could be ‘dangerous’

“I have no first-hand knowledge of a nefarious plan to drag this out,” said Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, co-leader of the Florida House Democrats, who acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the release of Census data needed for map-drawing.

But he added that once maps are drawn, they will be “dangerous for a lot of different reasons. We’re probably going to have the most limited amount of community input we’ve ever seen for these maps.”

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder, also condemned the Legislature’s reluctance for public hearings – even those held virtually.

“At a time when public hearings are being held and maps are being approved across the country, the Republican-led Florida Legislature continues to delay the process and leave Floridians in the dark,” said Fabiola Rodriguez, a committee spokeswoman.

“Republican legislators on the redistricting committees have closed the door on the public’s ability to participate meaningfully, further showing that they have all the same intentions to draw maps in a backroom again,” she added.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport