By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK–FLORIDA, July 24, 2021
TALLAHASSEE – The last time Florida’s ruling Republicans were tasked with redrawing the state’s political districts, a judge concluded they turned it into a “mockery” by secretly and illegally working to enhance their command of the state.
Fast-forward to this summer, and an even more powerful GOP-led Legislature is again getting ready to begin the once-a-decade recasting of state House, Senate and congressional boundaries – work which could help determine which party controls Congress after the 2022 election.
Republicans say they learned a lesson last time. And they’re pledging they won’t do anything wrong.
Democrats, though, aren’t convinced.
“We’re prepared for them to pull anything and everything,” said Fabiola Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
The Democratic committee has placed Florida among nine states it is tracking closely. But national Republican organizations also have the state in their redistricting crosshairs.
The stakes are enormous.
After all, adding even two more Republican U.S. House members from Florida – which many think is almost certain – could contribute toward flipping the chamber to a GOP majority, likely dooming many policy ambitions of President Joe Biden after the 2022 election.
Despite the national pressure, Senate Redistricting Chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, insisted that politics will not be at the heart of the map-drawing.
“The only commitment I can make is that we are going to uphold the constitution,” Rodrigues said. “To make any other predictions would be premature.”
Data to come
In-depth demographic data for the states from the U.S. Census Bureau is expected on Aug. 16, clearing the way for Florida lawmakers to hold their first re-districting hearings in September.
Line-drawing will consume much of the legislative session beginning in January. Final maps approved by the session’s scheduled end in March will open the door for legal challenges from Democrats and other groups likely to dispute some or all of the boundaries.
The Florida Supreme Court was a key player in the last redistricting round, when after a long legal fight, justices threw out the Legislature’s map in 2015 and set the state’s current congressional boundaries.
But that court may not be so welcoming now to Democrats.
The seven-member court now includes three justices appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and since the last redistricting lost to retirement the last three members appointed by a Democratic governor.
With Democrats holding a narrow edge in Washington, Florida’s congressional map will be a key battleground – with the state gaining one additional seat because of population growth over the past decade.
With 28 members of Congress, Florida’s partisan balance is critical to determining who controls the U.S. House, where currently a five-seat shift would give Republicans the majority.
The new congressional district in Florida is expected to be placed somewhere in Central Florida, home to the state’s biggest population growth. And given the state’s ruling party, lawmakers are sure to contour the new district so it easily could elect a Republican.
Two Democratic seats at risk
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a two-term Orlando Democrat, is widely seen as the state’s most threatened Democrat, with her district spanning Seminole and Orange counties considered ripe for reconfiguring.
The Pinellas County seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running for governor, also could emerge with more Republican voters.
Miami-area districts taken from Democrats last fall by first-term Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Gimenez and Maria Salazar, also are expected to be fortified for the GOP in whatever map emerges from the Legislature.
“Democrats have very little influence in the process and they could get completely steamrolled in the redistricting process if Republicans want to,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic data consultant.
“But after what happened last time with redistricting, Republican leaders may be wary of getting too aggressive, not wanting a long court fight,” he added. “There are also going to be a lot of competing interests at play here for Republicans, from national pressure to state House and Senate members who want to run for Congress themselves and may not be that interested in creating districts that might help incumbent members of Congress.”
Florida’s delegation now is 16 Republicans, 10 Democrats, with a Democratic-leaning seat left vacant by the April death of Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Delray Beach.
The state House and Senate maps hold even less hope for Democrats. Republicans hold a 78-42-seat dominance in the House and currently control the 40-member Senate with 24 seats, so Democrats face little chance of making dramatic gains in the Legislature through redistricting.
Swing state image could end
The Democratic Party’s lead in voter registration also is now at its lowest level in modern Florida history – casting some doubts about its future as the biggest toss-up state in national elections.
Florida could get even more Republican following next year’s redistricting, many analysts say.
Still, the soon-to-be-unfolding redistricting drama also will play out under a cloud of recent history.
Republicans insisted the 2012 redistricting process was transparent, but shadowy maneuvering by lawmakers and GOP campaign consultants was revealed during three years of lawsuits that followed.
More than two-dozen public hearings held before the 2012 legislative session later were shown in court testimony to be largely a fraud. GOP consultants secretly got citizens to submit maps carefully crafted to assure that an overwhelming majority of districts would elect Republicans.
Behind-the-scenes map-making by consultants working with Republican lawmakers also was revealed and found to have violated the state’s Fair Districts constitutional amendments, approved by voters in 2010.
These constitutional standards require that congressional and legislative districts be drawn without favoring incumbents or a particular political party.
Then-Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis overturned parts of the congressional plan, saying that the conspiring among lawmakers and consultants “made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.”
The Legislature spent $11 million in taxpayer money defending the congressional and Senate maps, challenged by a coalition of voters’ groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida.
But Florida Republicans lost the fight, and the state Supreme Court ultimately drew new congressional boundaries in 2015, adopting a plan proposed by the League and a coalition of voter groups. A Leon County judge weeks later signed off on a new Senate map, also cast by the coalition.
State House redistricting approved by the Legislature in 2012 had gone unchallenged.
Ellen Freidin, CEO of Fair Districts Now, said that while this rocky past shapes the thinking of voter organizations heading into the upcoming round of redistricting, recent events raise more alarms.
The voter groups circulated a pledge beginning in April, a simple request that asked lawmakers to swear they would abide by the constitutional requirements of Fair Districts when they began line-drawing again.
Only 16 agreed to sign – all Democrats.
“It raises grave concerns, especially when you overlay what they did a decade ago,” Freidin said. “You’ve got to question whether or not they really are going to respect the constitution and follow its mandates. Have they really learned anything from the past?”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport