While 17 states near the finish line, FL redistricting in public eye has barely begun

FairDistricts advocates wary of delays, barriers to citizen input

By: - October 11, 2021 7:00 am

Citizens demonstrate for voting rights and fair voting districts in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16, the 56th anniversary of the signing of the federal Voting Rights Act. The protest called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late civil-rights activist and congressman. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Seventeen states are way ahead of Florida in proposing new voting maps mandated by population changes documented by the 2020 Census, according to national redistricting trackers.

Indiana, Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon have finished drawing their new maps, and 13 more states have published proposed maps, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website named for the 538 members of the electoral college and owned by the Walt Disney Company, and All About Redistricting, a website hosted by Loyola Law School.

Maps for Ohio, Texas, and a handful of other states are complete enough to have drawn lawsuits challenging their allegedly partisan motives.

Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature is still educating its redistricting committees about how the monumental task is supposed to be accomplished. The committees met for the first time last month and reconvene this week.

No maps have been drafted in public — but there has been plenty of time for map ideas to germinate in private. Raw Census data was released in April, followed by formatted data in August, showing substantial population growth in influential central Florida, entitling Florida to a new, 28th congressional district.

Plans for gathering recommendations from citizens, other than by submitting comments through the state’s newly launched redistricting website, had not been announced as of Friday.

Another concern: Florida will not be subject to direct federal oversight ensuring protections for minority voters, since a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 — Shelby County v. Holder — gutted that provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In Florida, that oversight ensured the U.S. Department of Justice was directly involved in the drawing of district boundaries that affect minority voters, a process called preclearance. Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe counties were subject to preclearance review because of demonstrated racial discrimination.

Furthermore, redistricting committees reconvene this week amid questions raised Thursday about whether leaders are impeding public access to important Census data. House and Senate leaders deny the assertions, aired Thursday by two University of Florida political science professors published in the Tampa Bay Times.

Voting-rights advocates in the FairDistricts Coalition are expected to ask lawmakers this week about assertions that the state’s newly instituted map-drawing software gives an advantage to lawmakers — with Republicans in the majority — but hobbles citizens in terms of utilizing Census data to draw recommended district maps that will govern elections in 2022, 2024, and the rest of the decade.

That coalition comprises the nonprofit organizations FairDistricts Now, All On The Line Florida, Common Cause Florida, Equal Ground, the League of Women Voters of Florida, State Voices Florida, Florida Rising, State Innovation Exchange, Florida Conservation Voters, Florida Watch, Progress Florida, and UnidosUS.

With so much at stake — possibly including control of the U.S. House of Representatives — what is the holdup in Florida? Are new maps being crafted behind the scenes, while the public waits for permission to join in? Are there practical reasons why Florida lawmakers did not start work on redistricting as early as many other states, some of which convened in special session to tackle the task?

Florida held a special session in May on gambling.

Ellen Freidin, the Miami attorney who helped topple Florida’s Republican-crafted maps 10 years ago, says she knows of no practical explanation for Florida’s slow start, but thinks it will impede public participation. Legislators could have and should have started much sooner for this cycle and ensured ample time to allow public participation, she said.

“Traditionally, they always have started earlier,” Freidin said in an interview. “They absolutely could have appointed the committees for last session, and they could have had committee meetings during the last interim committee meeting weeks and also during the session. This educational piece that they’re doing now, they absolutely could have done it last fall, a year ago, or last spring. That’s not what they did, and what they have done doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Through their spokespeople, Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson and Republican House Speaker Chris Sprowls insist  they launched redistricting efforts as soon as the new Census data became available. They did not address questions from the Phoenix about why other states have progressed more than Florida has, given that all states received the data at the same time, with releases in April and August.

Speaking for Simpson, Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email, “The census data necessary for the map-drawing process to begin did not arrive until mid-August. That data was quickly analyzed by our staff and while it was being inputted to our software, informational presentations were developed and provided to senators to share with their constituents.”

For Sprowls, House spokeswoman Jenna Box Sarkissian wrote, “An understanding of the latest Census data and Florida’s makeup was essential for this redistricting process to begin. The Florida House said members would be appointed before Labor Day, shortly after the receipt of data from the Census Bureau, and that promise was kept.”

Betta and Sarkissian also pointed to the Legislature’s newly launched website — www.FloridaRedistricting.gov — as a vehicle for citizens to participate in the process. Watchdogs are skeptical.

FairDistricts and Shelby

Freidin, of Miami, founded and led the campaign that resulted in the 2010 adoption of Florida’s FairDistricts amendments — one governing legislative districts, the other congressional districts. She was instrumental in a fierce, four-year-long legal battle with the 2011 Legislature’s Republican leaders that ended with the Florida Supreme Court ruling that two of three legislatively approved maps violated the 2010 amendment by unlawfully favoring Republicans.

The court approved its own plan for congressional districts and state Senate seats using maps drawn by the FairDistricts Coalition. (The third legislatively adopted map, governing state House districts, held up.)

The two amendments say: “Congressional districts [in the twin amendment, legislative districts] or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”

Freidin is seeing signs that redistricting leaders this year may not comply with the FairDistricts constitutional amendment any better than their predecessors did in 2011. For starters, she says leaders could have and should have appointed their committees and completed orientation long before now, as other states have done and as Florida did in its last cycle.

“In the winter of 2010, the redistricting and reapportionment committees in the House and the Senate had been appointed and members who knew they would be responsible for redistricting were meeting regularly and learning about the process,” Freidin said.

In comparison, those committees were not appointed in this cycle until last month. They met for the first time the week of Sept. 20.

Simpson, Sprowls, and the chairmen of their redistricting committees blamed the delays on the late arrival of formatted 2020 Census data, caused by delays in collecting, processing and distributing the data due to COVID-19.

Fabiola Rodriguez, speaking for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, doesn’t buy it. The NDRC describes its mission as promoting “fair districts where Democrats can compete.”

“They keep using this excuse,” Rodriguez said, arguing that Florida legislators have pressing reasons to have prepared for redistricting long before September. “They could have been working through the summer.”

This will be the Florida Legislature’s first time drawing new legislative and congressional district maps under the auspices of the 2010 FairDistricts amendments but without oversight of the Justice Department, given the 2013 Shelby ruling.

In testimony to Congress, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said preclearance requirements ensured that citizen input was taken into account when drawing new voting districts. Without them, Clarke said, communities have “less insight into the electoral process and the process of making voting changes.”

The Justice Department “will not have access to maps and other redistricting-related information from many jurisdictions where there is reason for concern, even though this kind of information is necessary to assess where voting rights are being restricted or inform how the department directs its limited enforcement resources,” Clarke wrote on Aug. 16.

Republican state Sen. Ray Rodrigues,  a Lee County attorney chairing the Florida Senate’s Reapportionment Committee, is aware of the new conditions but sees them offsetting each other — and shrinking the necessity of gathering citizen input through public hearings. Betta supplied a transcript of Rodrigues’ statements on the issue on Sept. 20.

“If you go back and look in previous redistricting cycles, it was mandatory that the Legislature do a traveling road show. That was part of the Shelby court decision … and in 2013 the Shelby case was overturned,” Rodrigues said.

He argued that public hearings during the last redistricting cycle tended to focus on “communities of interest” in terms of racial equity but that Florida’s FairDistrict amendments mandate, among other things, a color-blind approach.

“Given that the key piece of information that we received from those road shows is no longer applicable to the drawing of the districts, my personal position is, I’m not sure we should expend the time to do that,” Rodrigues said.

Freidin completely disagrees, contending that Florida’s GOP legislative leaders should do all they can to redeem themselves after the debacle of 2012, when lawmakers adopted maps actually drawn by Republican operatives, in violation of the FairDistricts amendments. After a long and expensive legal battle, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the Legislature’s maps, twice, and drew its own.

“In the 2012 redistricting cycle, the Legislature admitted it could not be trusted to follow the Constitution in redistricting. One has to ask, what are they doing to earn back the trust of Floridians?” Freidin said.

“They are not genuinely seeking public input. They’re not setting it up in a user-friendly way, and the public is in a place where we really don’t know what’s going on.”

New information Monday was added to this report. Also, the original article misidentified where attorney Ellen Freidin studied law. She earned her degree at the University of Miami. The author apologizes for the error.

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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.