Armed with data, charts and expert opinions, lawyers in the trial over Florida's congressional districts sparred Friday over whether proposed maps before the court would elect or suppress Hispanic voters in Miami Dade County.
On center stage in circuit court in Leon County was Dario Moreno, the longtime professor of political science at Florida International University, and a national expert on the dynamics of the Hispanic vote in South Florida.
Hired by the Florida Legislature to be an expert witness in defense of every GOP-drawn redistricting map since 1994, Moreno testified that the alternatives offered up by the challengers would "pack Hispanics" into District 25 held by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart to create favorable neighboring districts for Democrats. Those districts, 26 and 27 are now held by Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
On the second day of a three-day redistricting hearing over the future of Florida's 27 congressional districts, the issue revolves around whether any of the seven proposed maps before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis would reduce access for Hispanic voters, a violation of the minority protections in the Fair District amendments to the state constitution. The GOP-led legislature has proposed three maps and League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Democrat-leaning plaintiffs in the case have proposed four maps.
At the heart of Moreno's analysis is the theory that Hispanic Democrats are "not turning out to vote in primaries" while black voters in the proposed districts do thereby creating a situation that would "lock out Hispanics" from choosing a candidate of their choice.
"Speculation that Hispanics will join with blacks to elect a candidate in Miami Dade is unrealistic, he said, because "Miami-Dade County has no history of coalition voting between African-Americans and Hispanics."
As a result, he concludes, based on the number of registered Hispanic voters in each of the proposed districts, compared to the number of registered non-Hispanic whites and registered black voters, the Hispanics will be edged out of electing an Hispanic in a primary.
Moreno was hired to analyze both the House map and the four maps drawn by challengers. He testified that he has been paid $63,000 by the Republican Party of Florida to do consulting work this election cycle, in addition to the money paid to him since 2012 by the Florida House as its redistricting expert.
His conclusion came as no surprise to anyone: the House's map is the best.
He told the court the plaintiffs' four maps all "significantly weaken Hispanic districts'' because they have "significantly fewer Hispanic Democrats" than in the Legislature's three proposed maps, making the Democratic primary "a formidable obstacle for any Hispanic candidate."
Moreno said his analysis showed that the plaintiff's maps pack Hispanic Republican neighborhoods into Diaz-Balart's District 25, boosting its performance from 70 percent Hispanic to 75 percent Hispanic. The plaintiff's map, known as CP1, also moves non-Latin, white voters in Miami Beach into District 27, now held by Ros-Lehtinen, reducing the Hispanic voting age population from 73 percent in the House map to 68 percent.
"There's no good reason to do that,'' he testified.
Plaintiff's attorney David King noted that the Legislature never complained about the plaintiff's configuration of District 27, only District 26. And he turned Moreno's previous work for the House against him.
Noting that Moreno had endorsed the map enacted by the Legislature in 2012 but
which was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court in July, King pointed to data that showed that in the enacted map the Hispanic voting age population for District 26 was 68 percent just as the plaintiffs had proposed in the map before the court, but less than what the House proposed in its latest map, which was 70 percent.
Moreno responded that the comparison was inappropriate.
"You're mixing terms here,'' he said. "You're saying that because you have a similar VAP [voting age population], you have a similar map."
He said that the voting behavior in a district depends on the communities included, and cited the including of the Richmond Heights neighborhood in the proposed District 26 as "very high performing for African American candidates."
"Your district may well perform [for Hispanics,}'' Moreno told King. "But it may not perform. I think the chances of it not performing is higher."
In the end, the debate may come down to how much weight to give the imprecise science of voter behavior and how much to rely on opinion.
"If the district is a lock for the Democrats,'' Moreno suggested, "the Democratic Party loses its incentive to recruit Hispanic candidates because any candidate will prevail. Then you don't have to worry who you nominate."
Moreno acknowledged that voter registration in Miami Dade County continues to trend Democratic.
"If Marco Rubio's elected president, it might stop,'' he said. "But if not, then I would expect the trend toward a more Democratic District 26 will continue."
He added, however, that "the Democratic Hispanic bench in Dade County is very weak,'' and said the only prominent prospects are state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez and Annette Taddeo, who is challenging Curbelo.
He noted that non-Hispanic candidates for a Democrat-leaning congressional seat also might include former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner and former school board member Evelyn Greer.