Democrats’ push for political parity in redistricting irks House committee chair

Rep. Tom Leek argues it’s improper to consider state’s partisan makeup

By: - November 2, 2021 8:17 pm

The Florida Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Tom Leek scolded Democrats on Tuesday for suggesting the panel consider results in recent gubernatorial races to draw new political districts reflecting Florida’s near parity between Republicans and Democrats.

During a hearing covering the legal rules for the redistricting process, the Volusia County Republican warned that even the mention of any such attempt could render any resulting state House and Senate or congressional districts vulnerable to legal challenges.

Democrats argued it’s a matter of fairness, but Leek, citing legal advice from the committee’s outside counsel, considers such talk a possible violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

“We particularly, as members of this committee, should not suggest that we should rebalance the maps based on the partisan split in the gubernatorial race,” Leek said.

“You will lead us down a path that is disastrous and wrong and we have got to stop saying it. I don’t want to hear it in this committee because it is a clear violation” of the Legislature’s obligation not to favor any political party or incumbent, he said.

The Legislature is redrawing the state’s political maps to align with the 2020 Census. The last redistricting process, undertaken a decade ago, resulted in litigation that stretched into 2016 as Democrats accused Republicans of exploiting their control of the Legislature to benefit their fellow partisans.

Leadership in both the House and the Senate have been adamant about avoiding a replay of that drama.

Pressing the issue on Tuesday were Fentrice Driskell of Hillsborough County, policy chief for the Democratic caucus, and Joe Geller, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Geller noted following the hearing the closeness of the last governor’s race — Ron DeSantis won by 32,463 votes out of more than 8 million cast in the 2018 general election.

“It’s not just about process. I’m interested in results. The last governor’s race, presidential races — this is a 1 percent state and if we end up with results that are wildly divergent from that, that’s going to indicate to me that we did not have a fair process,” he said.

“We can’t rebalance just to say there ought to be more, but we also should have in our head that we reflect the views of the people of Florida. And if we follow a good process but end up with a result that’s wildly out of balance compared to the fact that this is a divided state, I don’t think that we’ve done a good job.”

State law establishes principles for the Legislature to use along two tiers. Tier One, the more important, establishes that maps can’t favor a party or incumbent; can’t discriminate against racial or language minorities or diminish their ability to elect their chosen candidates; and must strive for contiguous districts.

Secondary considerations are that districts must be as nearly equal in population as possible; must be compact; and must follow existing political and geographical boundaries where possible.

That doesn’t guarantee parity in partisan representation by district, attorney Andy Bardos of GrayRobinson told the committee, because members of parties or minority groups may clump within geographical areas.

The Florida Supreme Court has recognized that, “given those factors, there might well be an imbalance in the map that’s unrelated to any intent. What counts is whether there’s evidence of intent to pack partisans or minorities within a district,” Bardos said.

“If there are neutral reasons that cause a map to be out of balance, and then the Legislature were to make changes to that map in order to rebalance it, then there would be a potential for a violation of the intent to favor or disfavor standard,” he said.

“The idea that you are going to pass a map that is purposely balanced based on a partisan split in the gubernatorial race is a Tier One violation. We have got to stop saying that. If there are members who are saying that, they should stop saying that,” Leek told reporters.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.