After brutal redistricting fight in 2012, FL lawmakers and voters brace for another in 2022

FL is in national spotlight, with new congressional district at stake

By: - August 27, 2021 7:00 am

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With little structure and no clear plan for public participation as COVID rages in Florida, state lawmakers will soon undertake one of their most impactful obligations to voters: redistricting.

The detailed 2020 Census data released Aug. 12 — late in the season because of COVID complications — grants Florida one new congressional district based on the state’s growth in population, which was greatest in central Florida, including Republican strongholds.

That new seat, the 28th in Republican-dominated Florida, could prove pivotal in whether Democrats in 2022 mid-term elections retain or lose their narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The population growth also mandates that Florida’s 40 state Senate districts and 120 districts in the state House of Representatives be redrawn so that they comprise roughly equivalent numbers of voters.

The process — which was bruising and expensive 10 years ago — could begin next month, when state lawmakers convene for committee hearings ahead of the Jan. 11 start of the 2022 legislative session. No meetings have yet been announced for committee weeks scheduled for September and October.

Former President Donald Trump, a Florida resident, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, up for re-election in 2022, are both nationally known Republicans who may run for president in 2024. No doubt they would like to see new voting districts keep Florida red and help swing Congress back to Republican control.

“Florida is Florida. It’s always going to be close,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns. She commented during a Zoom conference with the nonprofit States Newsroom, with bureaus in 23 states, including the Florida Phoenix.

“Florida is a place where Trump improved his performance over 2016, so it’s still a tough state [for Democrats] but we still consider it competitive.”

How competitive depends in part on contentious changes in voting laws and redistricting by the 2022 Legislature, though several key races for next year are well under way, including the governor’s race and one of Florida’s two U.S. Senate seats.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls issued memos to lawmakers on Aug. 12 urging them to avoid private partisan conversations and to retain all records pertaining to redistricting, whether transmitted on governmental or personal channels, per Florida law.

“All senators should be aware that, in prior redistricting cycles, significant litigation has followed passage of new maps. The Florida Supreme Court has also limited the scope of legislative privilege when it comes to redistricting. Sitting legislators may be compelled to produce records or be subject to questioning under oath about conversations with colleagues, with legislative staff, or with outside parties who may attempt to persuade the Legislature to pass maps that favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent,” Simpson wrote.

“As we move forward, senators should take care to insulate themselves from interests that may intentionally or unintentionally attempt to inappropriately influence the redistricting process,” Simpson warned.

Sprowls echoed those instructions and added that the Legislature has contracted with Environmental Systems Research Institute to provide web-based map-drawing software free to lawmakers, their staff and the public.

Named to chair the redistricting committees in each chamber are Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Lee County Republican, and Rep. Tom Leek, a Volusia County Republican. No other members of the committees have been announced.

Florida’s last redistricting, in 2012, roiled the state in lawsuits and led to Florida Supreme Court intervention to force compliance with “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved by voters in November 2010. The amendments were intended to prevent gerrymandering, the manipulation of district boundaries to favor one political party over another in future elections.

In 2015, maps of congressional districts and state Senate districts that were submitted by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause prevailed in court over ones submitted by political operatives, but not until after the 2012 and 2014 election cycles.

Democrat-backed All On The Line, a national campaign, is pushing for fair redistricting, transparency and public involvement.

“Republicans eroded public trust during the last redistricting process when they intentionally ignored the Fair Districts Amendments to pass maps that benefited themselves and incumbent legislators,” said Katie Vicsik, Florida director. “Showing up to speak about their community and shining a light on how the process is unfolding is one of the most important things that can be done [by Florida voters] to impact this decade’s redistricting process in Florida.”

In matters related to redistricting and the 2022 elections:

— Florida voting laws are in flux, with the League of Women Voters and other voting-rights groups challenging the GOP-sponsored election reforms found in Senate Bill 90, which was enacted in the spring. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, headed by U.S. senator and former Gov. Rick Scott, is helping defending Florida’s new law, which the League of Women Voters says is unconstitutional.

— Three citizen initiatives to pass constitutional amendments in 2022 to protect voting rights and vote-by-mail options are on hold, with drafters citing inability to raise sufficient funding due to a state law limiting campaign contributions to $3,000 per cycle. Although a judge blocked enforcement of the law in July, chairman Sean Shaw said donors were reluctant to give with the prospect that the contributions limit could render the cause a lost one. “I hope you will stay tuned for ways you can get involved with our campaign in early 2022,” Shaw told Florida Politics. “It will take lots of hard work to pass these ballot initiatives [in 2024] but defending our democracy is worth it.”

— Gov. DeSantis just appointed sufficient members to the Florida Elections Commission to constitute a quorum for the first time since May, according to the governor’s office. The commission is authorized to enforce the state’s elections laws, including rules over campaign finance and disclosures, and is housed in the Florida Department of Legal Affairs. The three appointees, subject to Senate confirmation, will join four sitting members whose terms have expired.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.