Florida’s Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix
Democrats raised fresh concerns Wednesday during hearings on new district maps for Florida House and Senate and congressional seats, including how to count prison inmates, how closely to adhere to existing districts, and the late arrival of documents for review during the day’s meetings.
Additionally, they continued to press for public hearings in local communities about how to draw the new maps. Republicans chairing the House and Senate redistricting committees have promised to seriously consider such hearings but have announced no plans for them, online or otherwise.
Democrats raised the question again during the meeting of the subcommittee considering new congressional districts — the matter didn’t even come up during the contemporaneous meeting of the subcommittee on House and Senate redistricting. (That’s another bone of contention to Democrats, who argue holding both hearings at the same time also limits public participation).
Congressional redistricting chairman Tyler Sirois of Brevard County appeared to rule out local hearings that would give Floridians an opportunity within their own neighborhoods to talk to their elected representatives about the new districts.
“We have a website that has a tremendous amount of capability. The residents of our state can submit their own proposals. They can submit comments to us through that. Just like the budget or any other bill that this Legislature takes up, there’s the opportunity for members of the public to provide testimony to us here at the Capitol,” Sirois said.
However, Rep. Dotie Joseph of Miami-Dade County, wanted to know about people without access to the website because they live in areas without broadband access. Additional populations that might miss out include seniors uncomfortable with computer technology.
Sirois made no commitment beyond: “I hear you.”
Earlier this week, chairman Ray Rodrigues, a Lee County Republican who chairs the Senate reapportionment committee, announced that his panel will not meet again until the Legislature convenes in regular session starting Jan. 11. That, too, would appear to rule out local hearings.
“We are now at the point of the process where the criteria have been agreed to by the committee, and the criteria will be communicated to staff,” Rodrigues said Monday. “They will present their work product to the two select committees that have been established.”
Those are the Senate congressional redistricting subcommittee, to be chaired by Sen. Jennifer Bradley, and the legislative redistricting subcommittee to be chaired by Sen. Danny Burgess. Both are Republicans, as are two-thirds of the redistricting committee members in both chambers.
Ranking congressional subcommittee Democrat Kelly Skidmore of Palm Beach County asked Wednesday about plans to count prison inmates: Where they’re incarcerated or where they come from? Counting them in their prisons “skews” the map, she noted.
Sirois promised: “I will look into the issue.”
But he noted that the U.S. Census Bureau counts inmates “where they reside” and added that, under Florida law, “we do not manipulate census data.” He added that the Legislature will take the same approach to college dormitories and nursing homes.
Democrats in the committee on House and Senate districts also asked about the inmates issue, which critics of current policy deride as “prison gerrymandering.”
At least 12 states have abandoned the practice, electing instead to count people who were incarcerated in jails, prisons or detention centers during the Census count as residents of the towns from which they came and to which they are likely to return upon release. People serving life sentences would be counted as prison residents.
Daley said counting inmate populations in a district where a prison is located distorts voting power.
“What that can do is increase the voting strength of the voters in that district, while diluting the strength of districts where those prisoners will likely return to. … We aren’t required to do it that way,” said ranking Democrat Dan Daley of Broward County, adding that the Census Bureau provides information about prisoners that would allow the Legislature to reassign them to their home districts.
Democrats in both meetings complained about the late arrival of documents spelling out the matters the committees were to discuss Wednesday.
Daley, for example, said the material dropped at 10:45 a.m. — not enough time for members or the public to digest it by the time the hearings began at 1 p.m.
Another topic in both House subcommittees Wednesday was how closely to base new districts on the old ones. Daley recommended new maps be based on existing ones drawn a decade ago by the Florida Supreme Court after it threw out GOP-drawn maps it deemed unlawful under Florida’s Fair Districts constitutional amendments.
Cord Byrd, chairman of the House/Senate panel, replied that Florida has changed dramatically since the last redistricting 10 years ago. “We’ve grown by 2.5 million people,” he said.
The final product, he suggested, may be a combination of the old districts plus some new ones. For certain, congressional districts will include a new, 28th seat reflecting population growth in central Florida.
Democrats have been pressing the Republican majority in the Legislature to lift a public records exemption that allows them to withhold reapportionment drafts, plans, amendments, and supporting documents until the committees file actual legislation.
Democrats filed House and Senate bills this week (HB 6053 and SB 530) to lift that exemption. Asked about it following Wednesday’s committee hearing, Sirois didn’t answer: He said only that he’s concentrating on mastering the constitutional guidelines underlying the process.
The redistricting panels thus far have focused on the criteria they must follow: They’re not allowed to favor a party or incumbent; they mustn’t disfavor racial or language minorities; districts must cover contiguous territory, be equal in population, be compact, and use existing geographic and political boundaries to the extent possible.
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