Another Round of Redistricting: Florida at Forefront Of District Movement

Zac Anderson | The Ledger | 08/01/2015

Since 2008, Florida has exhibited the political equivalent of a split personality, with a Democratic president twice winning the state even as Republicans racked up huge majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation.

Among the explanations for the state's alternating political personas: Experts say it is one of the most gerrymandered in the nation, with a wide array of oddly shaped political districts designed to maximize partisan advantage.

Now two blockbuster court cases — and a pair of constitutional amendments that paved the way for them — are earning Florida a new reputation as a state on the leading edge of efforts to rein in political gamesmanship in drawing legislative districts.

Following a string of victories by voting rights groups seeking to enforce provisions in the state constitution mandating compact districts that do not favor political parties or incumbents, Florida's anti-gerrymandering campaign increasingly looks like one of the more successful in the nation.

Supporters of the reforms say they are holding off on making any final judgments until the Legislature redraws congressional and state Senate districts during two special sessions that were precipitated by a Florida Supreme Court ruling last month.

But after years of battling at the ballot box and in court, members of the Fair Districts coalition are hopeful that their efforts will finally pay off.

"It really is history in the making," said Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the main groups behind the campaign.

ALWAYS BIASED?

But not everyone believes the Florida Supreme Court got it right in declaring eight of the state's congressional districts unconstitutional — a ruling that prompted state senators to admit last week that their districts also are unconstitutional and agree to preemptively redraw them rather than go through another trial — or that the court's decision will settle the debate.

Some argue the ruling will decrease minority representation in elected office, while others believe the redistricting process will never be free of partisan or incumbent bias until an independent commission is established to draw the lines.

Goodman said the legal battle is taking a toll, and there has been renewed talk of establishing an independent redistricting commission.

Still, there is no doubt that the recent legal developments are unprecedented for the state and represent a significant moment in the nationwide anti-gerrymandering debate.

"Particularly given the rulings this month, Florida is going to be a huge part of a much broader national conversation about this going forward," Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola College of Law in Los Angeles and a nationally recognized expert on redistricting and anti-gerrymandering efforts, said last week.

Florida's 2010 amendments are considered one of the strongest efforts in the nation to address gerrymandering, Levitt said, but a lot depended on how closely the Legislature followed the law and whether the courts were willing to give it "some teeth."

Given the recent Supreme Court ruling and its fallout, Florida has the potential to be among just a handful of states where partisan meddling in redistricting is greatly constrained by either legal precedent or strong independent redistricting commissions.

"Florida's step was pretty potent," Levitt said. "We'll soon see exactly how potent it is and whether the Legislature has truly gotten the message."

MISSTEPS ON THE WAY

Getting to this point has been a long struggle for those looking to overhaul Florida's redistricting process.

Their first attempt at revising the state constitution was shot down in 2006 by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the amendment failed the state's "single subject" test for ballot measures and had confusing language.

That proposal would have established an independent redistricting commission and other rules for drawing political maps.

Goodman said supporters of the 2006 amendment later determined, based on polling, that the redistricting commission was unlikely to gain voter approval at that time anyway.

They tried again in 2010 with a new ballot measure — approved by 63 percent of voters — that keeps the Legislature in charge of drawing district lines but outlines a stringent set of rules for the process.

The first test of those rules came in 2012 when lawmakers redrew the state's political maps based on the 2010 Census.

Fair Districts supporters accused the Legislature of largely ignoring the new language in the constitution. One much-maligned congressional district snakes all the way from Orlando to Jacksonville and narrows to the width of a roadway in one section.

A three-year legal battle ensued.

Lawyers for those challenging the maps unearthed evidence that GOP political operatives had been deeply involved in drawing the districts that eventually became law.

Based on that evidence, the Florida Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling last month throwing out all of the congressional districts challenged by the voting rights groups. The ruling was so decisive it prompted the state Senate to admit guilt in a separate case last week and agree to redraw the Senate lines.

A special session will be held from Aug. 10-21 to redraw the congressional lines, and from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6 to address the Senate maps.

Election law experts say the latest developments in the redistricting saga are highly unusual.

"It's generally rare for a state Legislature to admit defeat the way they did," said Richard Hasen, a nationally-recognized election law expert who teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

NATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

What is happening in Florida could have ramifications around the country, experts say.

Florida was the first state in the nation to prohibit the drawing of political districts for partisan purposes through the constitutional amendment that also keeps the Legislature in charge of the redistricting process, Levitt said.

If the system ends up being effective, it could increasingly be seen as an alternative to independent redistricting commissions, particularly in states that have a ballot initiative process.

"This is significant," Hasen said. "People in the election law world see it as significant and as a potential path to rein in gerrymandering."

But some remain skeptical that Florida's current system can effectively curb gerrymandering going forward.

Former Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery has questioned whether voting rights groups can continue to shoulder the costs associated with pursuing legal challenges if the Legislature draws questionable districts in the future, and whether the state Supreme Court will continue to toss out contested maps.

"By its nature, redistricting will always be political," Dockery wrote in her syndicated column. "Whether Republicans or Democrats control the process, the majority will always strive to preserve its power."

An independent redistricting commission may be the only way to resolve the "blatant conflict of interest," Dockery added.

Despite the recent court victories, Goodman said the League of Women Voters will take another look at the independent commission concept going forward.

She noted the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona's redistricting commission and said "we would be remiss if we didn't look into that."

"As we head into another redistricting cycle in 2020 the question arises of whether they have learned their lesson," Goodman said. "Can we trust that they'll get it right the first time or will it be another decade of litigation?"


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