After eight rulings by the Florida Supreme Court and an admission of guilt by legislators, the Senate redistricting trial ended Thursday with a Tallahassee judge asking the parties to tell him their top choices for a new Senate map.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds now must decide whether to accept one of four proposals offered by the challengers — a coalition of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and a group of Democrat-leaning individuals — or a map drawn by Senate staff but never voted on by the Legislature.
The challengers said Reynolds should pick one of two maps that create four Hispanic-majority districts in Miami-Dade County, boosting the number of Hispanic-dominated seats from three and opening the door to a Hispanic district dominated by Democrats.
The Senate’s lawyers, who operated solo during the four-day trial as the House sat on the sidelines, told the judge that if he rejects the Senate’s proposed map — the Senate’s first choice — they would like him to draw his own. The Senate offered up its map drawer to work with the plaintiffs’ map drawer to do the job.
“We believe that we arrived at a process that comes as close as you can come to ensuring that the map drawing process is not impacted by any improper intent or partisanship,” said Jason Zakia, lawyer for the Senate, noting that after violating the Constitution in 2012 the Senate attempted to keep politics from infiltrating the process.
Reynolds signaled that he will weigh the options and may even piece together a hybrid of them and come up with his own version. But whatever the outcome the result is expected to create from three to six new competitive districts in the GOP-dominated Senate and open the door to more than 14 Democrats in the 40-member chamber.
“I know my clients take pride in the changes that have been wrought as a result of this process,’’ David King, lead attorney for the coalition plaintiffs said in his closing arguments Thursday. “Whatever map you come up with will make a huge improvement to the enacted map.’’
After the coalition uncovered evidence that showed that in 2012 Republican operatives faked “public” submissions, possessed draft Senate maps more than a month before senators, and submitted Republican-leaning maps that matched pieces that became the foundation of the adopted Senate redistricting plan, the Senate agreed in July to abandon the map they had used for the last two election cycles and start over.
The four-day trial brings to an end a tumultuous year of redistricting battles that has cost taxpayers over $11 million, led to four trials, three special sessions and eight rulings from the Florida Supreme Court.
At the core of the dispute is the Legislature’s implementation of the Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution, which for the first time required that lawmakers draw political boundaries without the intent to favor incumbents or political parties.
The plaintiffs argued that their proposals are more pure — creating districts that are more compact than the Senate’s plan, have less population, split fewer cities and counties and create at least five more Democrat-leaning districts in the Senate.
They blasted the Senate plan as hand-picked by Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has aspirations of becoming Senate president in 2018.
Although the Senate touted its map was drawn in a “sterile” environment without any knowledge of how well it performed politically, King raised doubts about their argument, suggesting that of all seven maps produced by the Senate “they come up with the strongest Republican map of any they chose”
“The map not only got better from a standpoint of partisanship, but it got better from a standpoint of protecting incumbents,” he said, nothing that the map Galvano chose did not pair him with Sen. Tom Lee,, R-Brandon, as other maps had done.
“You have to ask how does that happen?” King said.
But Senate lawyer Jason Zakia suggested that the plaintiffs’ map was not devoid of political intent, either.
He showed emails from 2011 in which the plaintiffs’ map drawer, John O’Neill, was instructed by Democrat lawyers to draw maps that improved Democratic performance.
O’Neill testified that after the Florida Supreme Court rejected that approach, he jettisoned those maps and never looked at political performance data again. But Zakia suggested that conclusion was not credible.
He noted that in every map submitted by the plaintiffs they kept the cities of Ocala and Gainesville together, implying that was done to improve Democratic performance.
The court also heard testimony from the challengers’ key witness, Allan J. Lichtman, a political science professor from American University and an expert on voting patterns and the federal Voting Rights Act. He testified that the map proposed by the Senate attempts to pack blacks into a Broward–based district and Hispanics into three Republican-controlled Miami-Dade districts.
“That is called wasted votes,” he said, and warned it could violate the Voting Rights Act. “When you have unduly concentrated minorities in a few districts you’ve restricted their opportunities to participate fully in the process and elect candidates of their choice.”
He added that the “purpose of the Voting Rights Act is not to fence in minorities” but to expand their voting opportunities.
Because the county is increasingly becoming a swing district, he said, it is “more important than ever to put Hispanic candidates in these districts to win the swing vote,” he said and testified that the plaintiffs’ map will elect four senators.
The biggest surprise of the four-day trial came from Reynolds who aggressively challenged the assumptions made by both sides for failing to include political data when drawing maps. He said he had concluded “that is absolutely necessary in formulating a plan” and suggested the data should be considered as the maps are drawn not just “in the rearview mirror.”
“We’ve to gotten to the stage where each side is promoting how pristine their map drawer was,” Reynolds said. “It has now led us to a number of plans that are just out of whack.” By including the political data earlier in the process, he suggested, would allow for more fair distribution of districts.
The parties will give Reynolds proposed orders by Dec. 23, and he will recommend a map to the Florida Supreme Court in time for a final plan to be complete by mid-March.
Mary Ellen Klas: firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas