Scientists: Florida's congressional map is 'partisan gerrymander'

Aaron Deslatte[ck_comma] Tallahassee Bureau Chief | Orlando Sentinel | 05/27/2014

TALLAHASSEE — The coalition of groups trying to prove Florida's congressional map was intentionally gerrymandered to help Republicans turned to experts Tuesday who testified it "virtually impossible" to have drawn the maps without political bias.

The trial over Florida's congressional maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature and challenged by the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs began its second week Tuesday with GOP operative Frank Terraferma testifying again about maps he had drawn and passed along to another GOP consultant, Rich Heffley. Similar versions of the maps were later publicly submitted to the Legislature by an engineering student at Florida State University.

Terraferma has said repeatedly last Friday and Tuesday he didn't know how the maps he drew ended up being submitted by the student. Prior Republican operatives have testified about how they disseminated draft maps and were unhappy not to have a "seat at the table" during redistricting thanks to 2010 constitutional reforms that outlawed intentional gerrymandering.

But both sides have argued proving the maps were intentionally drawn to favor the GOP is a high threshold. And the trial on Tuesday also moved into an expert-witness phase.

Jonathan Katz, a social science and statistics professor at the California Institute of Technology, testified in the lawsuit Tuesday that Florida's congressional map was heavily biased toward electing Republicans despite the state's Democratic-edge in voters.

Katz is part of a group of political scientists considered among the nation's foremost experts on redistricting — developing a standard for evaluating the partisan bias of maps known as "partisan symmetry" which has been used for years by scientists and the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether states were intentionally tilting electoral playing fields to help political parties or incumbents.

The method involves determining how an increase in voter-share translates into an increase in seats in a legislative body like Congress or a state legislature. With a perfectly neutral map, either Republicans or Democrats would gain the same number of seats on average for a given increase in the share of voters they turned out. Seats drawn with partisan intent would disproportionately boost the number of seats for one party over the other.

In Florida's case, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit hired Katz at $500 an hour to analyze the re-drawn congressional maps. Katz concluded they were the most biased he had every examined for a court case — easily twice as pro- Republican-leaning as Texas maps drawn by the chair of the state's Republican Party.

His analysis suggested that the pro-GOP bias using 2010 voter-turnout data was 15.9 percent. Intuitively, that means Republicans could expect to capture 58 percent of the congressional seats to Democrats' 42 percent of the seats, even if voter turnout was perfectly balanced at 50 percent GOP and 50 percent Democrat.

Katz said preliminary analysis of the 2012 election results showed the same bias.

“In this case they did a really good job of following the recipe about how to do a partisan gerrymander," Katz testified in the Leon County court room.

Katz was then asked if he had considered the question of intent, which he had not.

“Intent’s a legal question and I’m not a lawyer," Katz said.

"What my analysis is about is whether or not the plan shows statistically significant partisan bias. The answer is it does. They produced a partisan gerrymander.”

Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden also testified Tuesday about research he had done along with Jowei Chen of the University of Michigan which found it "virtually impossible" that the Legislature had drawn the current map without some intentional level of partisan bias.

“The plan introduced by the Legislature is an extreme statistical outlier," Rodden told the court.

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