Senate Democrat says redistricting process has been apolitical thus far

Republicans running the show seem intent on avoiding court battles

By: - November 29, 2021 1:24 pm

State Sen. Linda Stewart at the Senate Select Subcommittee on Congressional Reapportionment, Nov. 29, 2021. Stewart, a Democrat, represents part of Orange County. Credit: Florida Channel.

A Democrat on the Senate Select Subcommittee on Congressional Reapportionment believes the panel’s Republican majority is managing to keep the process free of partisanship.

“I don’t call it political at all,” Sen. Linda Stewart of Orange County told reporters Monday following a short meeting by the subcommittee.

She stressed that she was talking only about the work of the panel she serves on.

“I think it means that we won’t have a lawsuit — that we’re going to have a pretty easy go of it, at least the congressional,” Stewart said.

“Nobody wants to go to court. They want to do it the first time.”

The Senate Select Subcommittee on Legislative Reapportionment was set to meet later Monday afternoon. The Florida House released proposed congressional and legislative maps on the website, www.FloridaRedistricting.gov.

Subcommittee chair Jennifer Bradley of Northeast Florida said the panel won’t meet again until the regular session begins in January. She expects the full Reapportionment Committee to sit early during session to prepare for conference committee hearings with its House counterpart.

“We’re going to continue to improve and make refinements to the maps,” Bradley said.

Stewart remarked that she’s heard precious little from her constituents about the process. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have opted, over Democratic protests, to forego public hearings around the state to get input from regular citizens, although they are free to travel to Tallahassee or propose their own maps via the FloridaRedistricing portal.

These leaders blamed the late arrival, in April, of 2020 Census results. Population growth during the past decade entitles Florida to a new congressional district, the 28th. According to the latest Senate map, that district will center on Polk County.

“It’s funny, because normally you get a lot of feedback from citizens, and I have got absolutely no feedback. I think that what they’re doing is they’re trying to wait and see how these [maps] are being introduced and then seeing if they have a problem with it,” Stewart said.

The subcommittee has charged its apolitical staff to finetune its proposed maps to insulate the Senate from possible charges that they are politically motivated, which could give rise to the sort of litigation that forced the Florida Supreme Court to redraw districts following the 2010 census.

Staff Director Jay Ferrin told the committee that the latest maps shift boundaries slightly to avoid splitting cities and counties as much as possible. For example, an extrusion from Congressional District 9 represents a lake lying at the boundary between Osceola and Polk counties, he said.

That cheered Sen. Gayle Harrell, whose district includes St. Lucie and portions of Martin and Palm Beach counties. “There is real improvement,” in that regard, she said. “Although we do know city boundaries do change, it’s good to at least start with what is the existing city.”

Additionally, the staff drew two extensions to Congressional District 20, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, to capture minority voters and keep the district at least 50 percent Black, Ferrin said. “In order to get to that population, it had to be drawn in a slightly less compact manner.”

Governing the process is federal law and Florida’s Fair Districts amendments, adopted by the voters in 2010 in hopes of preventing partisan gerrymanders. Even so, the 2010 maps produced extensive litigation, culminating when the Florida Supreme Court rejecting the Legislature’s congressional and state Senate maps.

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.

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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.

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