Redistricting saga moves congressional map ‘closer to fairness’

Under the new map, at least five of the 27 members of Congress are edged out of their current districts.
Under the new map, at least five of the 27 members of Congress are edged out of their current districts. MCT File

In the aftermath of another redistricting shakeup, Florida's congressional delegation is in flux as a court-approved map threatens to whittle away at the 17-member Republican majority while Democrats gain strength.

December’s ruling by the Florida Supreme Court approved a map drawn by a coalition of voting groups — and it is having a ripple effect from Miami to Tallahassee.

At least five of the 27 members of Congress are edged out of their current districts. Four incumbents – U.S. Reps. Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill, David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, Ron DeSantis, R-Port Orange, and Patrick Murphy, D-West Palm Beach — are not running for reelection. U.S. Reps. Dan Webster, R-Orlando, and Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, are considering moving to new territory.

U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, is now forced to run in a district with a majority of Republicans or consider another race.

In Miami, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 230,000 voters, U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now have districts filled with many more Democrats.

And, across the state, incumbents find themselves representing communities that have never voted for them — prompting challengers, who otherwise may have waited on the sidelines for incumbents to retire, to consider running now.

"We’re closer to fairness,’’ said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and an expert on redistricting.

“You’re probably looking at Democrats getting 12 and Republicans 15 in 2016, rather than 10 and 17,” he predicted. The incremental shift will continue when Ros-Lehtinen, a popular Republican incumbent, retires. “That seat is likely to swing to the Democrat and then you’re looking at a 14-13 split in the delegation. That’s pretty fair.”

The catalyst was the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, adopted by voters in 2010 to prohibit legislators from protecting incumbents or political parties when redistricting. Lawmakers tried twice to draw a congressional map that adhered to the rules but the courts found they allowed political operatives to infiltrate the process and rejected them as partisan gerrymanders.

Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters, which successfully challenged the Legislature’s map, believes the map the challengers drew, and which the court accepted, will have a ripple effect on policy.

“The goal of the amendments was never to make a fairer map,’’ she said. “It was to produce fairer and more competitive elections, to expect incumbents to listen, to be a mouthpiece for their constituents — not special interests and campaign interests.”

The new map is composed of districts that follow county and city boundary lines and include shapes that are more compact in character than any map in the last 30 years.

“More importantly, it’s likely not only a gain for Democrats but for racial representation in Florida,” McDonald said, as the map opened the door to elect a black or Hispanic person from Orlando — bringing the total number of minority seats from six to seven.

McDonald said he believes the new maps also will help voters demand more accountability from their congressional delegation.

“When you have districts respecting more political boundaries, that does lead to better quality of representation and a greater ability for challengers to mount successful campaigns,’’ he said. And when districts are more competitive — “when there’s an equal balance of Democrats and Republicans, members will shift their policies in a moderate direction.’’

"Neither party can say they control the delegation,’’ said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant from Miami. "For Democrats, that’s a victory but we have to now go and compete."

But while the political impact of the amendments will be incremental, the court rulings have been historic, he said. The court required that lawmakers justify why they drew the lines the way they did and opened the process to public scrutiny.

"Those who want to try to rig the system in the future must think twice because their emails and communications could be exposed,’’ Ulvert said.

But, McDonald warns, “the districts themselves are not entirely determinative of the election results. We still have to have elections.”

Florida tends to vote Republican in mid-term election years when the governor is on the ballot, and it swings Democratic in presidential years. While the new map allows for Democrats to pick up seats and have a fair division of the congressional delegation, it is no guarantee, he said.

“It may be that incumbents represent their districts very well and a Republican in a Democrat-leaning district is able to withstand a challenge,’’ McDonald said. "But if he doesn’t, there is a better chance that challengers can emerge and voters can hold him accountable.”

The factors that make districts competitive in one state may not work in another, he said. As an advisor to the Arizona redistricting commission, which is required to draw maps that are competitive, he determined that if two well-qualified candidates were running, either of them could win if the margin between the parties was 47.5 percent to 52.5 percent.

“More importantly, it’s likely not only a gain for Democrats but for racial representation in Florida.”

Meanwhile, the political dominoes have begun to fall across the map.

Faced with a newly drawn seat that favors Democrats, Jolly announced he will not seek reelection in the St. Petersburg-based district. A primary battle is now underway between former Gov. Charlie Crist and Eric Lynn.

In South Florida. Curbelo is in one of three districts that have been redrawn to favor Democrats. He faces a challenge from Annette Taddeo, and other Democrats are rumored to be considering entering the race.

In Palm Beach County, U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch were drawn into the same district. Deutch has decided he will run in the Broward-based district rather than run against Frankel.

Farther north, a heated primary battle is underway for both Republicans and Democrats as seven candidates fight to replace Murphy in the seat that straddles Martin and Palm Beach counties.

In Central Florida, Congressman Richard Nugent, a Republican and former Hernando County sheriff who was elected in 2010, announced his retirement in November, after this term. It is widely believed that Congressman Webster, a Republican who now represents the newly configured 10th district, will file to run in the district now held by Nugent.

The new Congressional District 10 leans Democratic and will be what voting scholars call a coalition district that allows for African Americans and Hispanics to be pivotal in the election of the eventual candidate.

Candidates there now include former Orlando police chief Val Demings, who narrowly lost to Webster in 2012, and state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, and former Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe is considering running. Rep. Corrine Brown has also told people that she is considering running in that district, rather than her newly configured District 5.

Brown’s district is at the core of the redistricting battle and was partly responsible for inspiring proponents to pursue the Fair Districts amendments.

The Jacksonville Democrat’s current district stretches 140 miles from Duval County south to Sanford, outside of Orlando. A more contorted version of the sprawling district was drawn to protect minority voters in 1992 and legislators modified it to make the district more compact in 2012.

But the courts found that the district also served to dilute the Democratic vote in North and Central Florida, allowing Republicans to pack Democrats to make the surrounding districts safer for Republicans. When the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the 2012 map drawn by the Legislature, it ordered the reconfiguration of the District 5 minority-majority seat to cross the top of the state, keeping rural counties whole, rather than divide communities down the middle.

The new district crosses the north of the state from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and Brown is now challenging the map in federal court. She alleges that it violates the federal Voting Rights Act because "it is disenfranchising African-American voters,’’ she said.

She notes that the new district contains 18 prisons that hold 17,000 prisoners, 46 percent of which are black — most of whom are counted as voting-age population in her district. She is asking the court to immediately reject the new map and order elections to be run based on the current maps. Her revised complaint is due Tuesday and oral arguments are expected in January.

Redistricting experts say that while there is precedent for such a case to move forward, it is less likely the court will halt implementation of the new map. Expecting that, several potential Democratic candidates have already lined up to run in the district. Former state Sen. Al Lawson said he will announce his candidacy in January. Also considering are Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former state Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville and state Rep. Mia Jones.

Right now, Brown is counting on the court to block the new congressional map.

"She is filing in District 5 for the moment with the intention that she is going to win her suit and the boundaries are going to stay the same,’’ said David Simon, Brown spokeswoman.

McDonald, the UF professor who has studied redistricting for the last 30 years, said Brown’s protests are surprising since she could win in the district.

“This is a very unusual situation where you find an incumbent who is vociferous against the outcome of a redistricting plan when they could very well win in it,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, the 2016 election clock is ticking. Florida’s supervisors of elections have told a Tallahassee judge that they need final maps by March 15 in order to move forward with assigning new precincts and districts to voters.

A decision on Brown’s call for an injunction is expected from the federal courts in January or February but, for the supporters of the Fair Districts amendments, their decade-long fight for fair elections and more accountable representation has been validated.

“This is a big first step but change not going to happen immediately,’’ Goodman said. “The next step is to hold candidates’ feet to the fire and make sure they live up to what they are going to do.”