The decision by the Florida Supreme Court last week ordering the Legislature to redraw the state’s congressional districts gives lawmakers what could be their last chance to produce a fair and bipartisan electoral map.
The court found that lawmakers violated the Fair Districts Amendment of 2010, which explicitly prohibited partisan intent in drawing electoral maps. Furthermore, it ordered a redrawing of eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts — four held by Republicans, four by Democrats — and gave lawmakers a 100-day deadline to complete their work.
The court’s 5-2 ruling represents an unmistakable setback for flagrant partisanship by Florida’s legislators and a landmark victory for voters and democratic principle. As the court put it, “Voters must choose their representatives, not the other way around.”
Despite the clear and undeniable intent of the Fair Districts Amendment, legislators did their best to game the system on behalf of incumbents.
They shamelessly and routinely deleted redistricting records to avoid public scrutiny. A legislative staffer testified about giving a flash drive of maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they became public. Legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and operatives to discuss strategy.
It’s no wonder that the court rejected the resulting map. Now the Legislature will once again have to go through the time, trouble and expense of a special session — its second this year — to come up with a remedy that satisfies the court and the Florida Constitution.
The task won’t be easy because any acceptable map must adhere to the rule that district lines respect the ability of minorities to elect representatives of their choice. Rep. Corrine Brown, an African American whose North Florida district is a poster child for gerrymandering, says redrawing it would be a setback for black voters.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, argued a more-compact district with a high number of black voters can be created without resorting to the outrageous concoction that the current 5th District represents.
The most affected part of the state will be South Florida, where five congressional districts must be redrawn. They involve incumbent Miami-Dade Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, and Democrats Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County. Of these, Mr. Curbelo’s District 26 will likely see the strongest impact, with the possible addition of Democratic-leaning voters to make a swing district even more of a toss-up.
For the Legislature, this is gut-check time. Instead of asking themselves, “How much can I get away with?” — as they are prone to do — lawmakers should focus on devising a map that meets constitutional requirements, period. If they can’t, what would happen next is fairly predictable. In the short term, the court would create its own map in time for next year’s election — not a preferable option — or the task would be handed over to a special master. That’s what happened in New York.
Longer term, the Legislature’s failure would provide a strong argument for letting an independent panel handle redistricting, an arrangement the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld. This would be a perfect target for Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, which meets again in 2018. That’s only three years away.