Who is to blame for the latest legislative impasse over redistricting?
The finger-pointing began quickly last week as Florida lawmakers adjourned their second special session on redistricting and faced the prospect of another court-ordered map.
Lawmakers blamed the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution as impossible to follow, and House and Senate leaders lashed out at the challengers — a coalition of Democrat-leaning individuals and voter groups led by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida — for manipulating the process. This week, the challengers lashed back.
“I don’t believe the plaintiffs want to see a legislatively approved map,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting after the House passed its proposed map. “They’re not an honest player in this process.”
Florida lawmakers called the self-imposed special session after ending the lawsuit by the challengers and admitting that the 2012 Senate redistricting maps violated the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the state constitution because they were drawn with partisan political intent.
But by submitting maps the evening before a vote in the full House or Senate, lawmakers could not consider them, Oliva said. He called it “gamesmanship” that used “the legislative process of the people to manipulate the judicial process of the people.”
David King, the lead lawyer for the coalition, said Monday that it was the Legislature that was manipulating the process.
“The coalition does not consider redistricting a game,” he said in a statement. “It is a very serious effort to ensure that voters can fairly choose their representatives and to stop legislators from rigging districts to favor themselves and their political parties.”
He said the plaintiffs offered a detailed description of the defects in 28 districts from the state Senate map enacted by lawmakers in 2012, but lawyers for the House and Senate instructed staff not to consider it.
The staff then drafted six base maps that were rife with problems, King said, and although the challengers submitted alternative maps, the exercise gave the coalition little incentive to appear before the committee.
“This was a clear sign that input from the coalition would not be considered and called into question the Legislature’s motivation in even asking for the coalition’s suggestions,” King said.
When the three-week session ended without a resolution, Senate Reapportionment Committee chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, accused the plaintiffs of their own “partisan intent.”
He said that by design, the challengers have an “explicit tactical advantage” because with every map drawn by the Legislature, they can submit to the court an alternative and “can put together a product that’s drawn to beat the scores.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also said the advantage favored the challengers.
“We don’t know who they consulted with,” he said, suggesting they could have called a political operative and asked how the map performed for Democrats.
Asked to respond, King defended the League of Women Voters and Common Cause as “non-partisan organizations that have worked for decades to eliminate partisanship in redistricting” and said, “no political party or political party organization has played any role in drafting the alternative maps offered by the Fair Districts Coalition.”
“Rather than looking to its own members and the procedures they used to draft the maps, throughout the litigation, the Legislature has attempted to avoid responsibility for its unconstitutional behavior by attacking the motivations of the lead plaintiffs and alleging they are partisan,” he told the Herald/Times.
The exchange provides a window into the arguments that will come before Leon Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds on Dec. 14-18 when he holds a hearing to recommend a map to the Florida Supreme Court for the 2016 election cycle. Reynolds said Monday he would discuss the trial schedule at a hearing Tuesday.
King denied that the maps submitted by the challengers were an attempt to give them an advantage with the court but instead were an attempt to find the defects and they “as quickly as possible provided an alternative map along with a letter of explanation.”
Among those defects, he said, was the revelation that the primary data used by the Legislature was was based on 2010 data, instead of the more recent 2012 and 2014 primaries. The Fair Districts amendments require that lawmakers draw maps that do not reduce the voting strength of minority voters and the primary data is important to assess whether the proposed minority districts would elect African American and Hispanic candidates.
But the Legislature’s staff and lawyers told lawmakers that updating and validating the new data could be time-consuming, expensive and take as long as a year.
In an effort to prove them wrong, the challengers gathered the data for the minority districts and submitted two additional maps that showed that four Hispanic-majority districts could be drawn in South Florida, rather than three. The fourth seat stretched from Monroe County into Miami-Dade County and, based on 2012 primary numbers, included 51 percent Hispanic voters.
One of the maps submitted by the challengers also attempted to show that a map could be drawn that does not cross Tampa Bay to link African American communities together to create a majority minority seat. Legislators rejected both maps and made no attempt to use the data.
“Nor did the Legislature, notwithstanding its vast resources, produce its own data or provide the coalition with specific information about the alleged issues with the data the coalition had produced,” King said.
The impasse prompted several legislators to conclude that Fair Districts provisions were impossible for Florida’s elected legislators to follow.
“The system is completely broken and it needs to be fixed,’ said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is scheduled to be House speaker in 2016. He told the Herald/Times as the session imploded, that he is “completely open” to considering legislation next session to create an independent commission that would remove the job from lawmakers.
Galvano suggested that complaints from senators about the House map dividing their communities are not relevant to the Fair Districts rules. He suggested the constitution could be altered to add communities of interest as another protection, behind minorities, banning incumbency protection and following geographical and political boundaries.
But King said he considers that kind of change a possible political trap. The Legislature tried to pass an amendment in 2010 that would have given “communities of interest” priority over the other mapping guidelines, but the Florida Supreme Court rejected the amendment as misleading.
“The term community of interest can mean almost anything and should not be used as a way for legislators to avoid having to follow the rules that 63 percent of citizens said they wanted them to follow,” he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MaryEllenKlas and at (850) 222-3095. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas