Redistricting
Opinion

Mixed Messages: Florida’s Redistricting Process

For several months now, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature has been the focus of increasing scrutiny as the process of redistricting gets underway. Across the nation, the consensus has been to increase opportunities for public input on potential new district maps. Florida’s lawmakers, however, are doing something decidedly different.

Republicans who dominate the reapportionment committees have refused to hold public hearings. They will not conduct hearings on-the-road nor will they speak to the media. Yet, they continue to draw the maps all the same.

The last time Florida’s lawmakers drew maps following the release of new census data was in 2011. Those maps were so cartoonishly ​​contorted in favor of Republicans that they were eventually thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court and redrawn. Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis also concluded that Republican operatives had successfully been able to “hijack” the redistricting process, running a shadow operation implicating everyone from the speaker of the Florida House and the Florida Senate president to seedy political operatives who drew maps code-named Frankenstein, Sputnik and Shmedloff.

This heightens the need for Florida’s Republicans to open the process this time — they must show the public exactly what they are doing in order to earn back the trust they lost. However, they aren’t exactly helping their case.

Republican state legislators have claimed that these changes are due to COVID-19 despite simultaneously claiming the pandemic is over. They have also tried to explain that since the census data was released late, they effectively had less time to do their jobs. This is particularly interesting as these lawmakers found several legislative days to tilt at the windmill of non-existent voter fraud. DeSantis has even recently announced a special five-day legislative session to combat the (super scary) spread of vaccine mandates.

Though the map drawing cannot formally begin until January, it would be wise for lawmakers to gauge public sentiment with hearings prior to redistricting. There is certainly time to do so and membership of the respective committees has been finalized. Even Zoom hearings — COVID-19 safe, in far more controlled environments than in-person hearings and logistically more flexible — would be welcomed.

Several other Republican-controlled states have already finished their redistricting; West Virginia, for example, conducted both in-person and virtual public hearings. They also received the data later than usual while the Delta Variant was spiking in their state, yet they still managed to get the job done properly. Why can’t Floridian Republicans do the same?

Room for Optimism

Not all hope is lost. Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, a member of the Reapportionment Committee, has a more positive outlook on the redistricting process. A proud public servant, she told the Florida Political Review she sees her task as making sure legislators “are constitutionally doing [their] jobs,” striving to ensure the committee is “not biased at all.”

It is my hope that all lawmakers can perform their duties with this creed in their minds, as it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the fiasco of 2011. By adhering to the state and federal constitutions — not partisan actors — legislators would enormously benefit the Floridian people.

The Floridian people deserve representatives who truly represent them. The good thing is, some changes are allowing this to become a reality. As Gibson points out, this is the first time “there is a [new] website with more information” than many people can glean from on-the-road hearings — a key difference from redistricting in 2011.

The website, floridaredistricting.gov, regularly updates the public on the redistricting process. Its creation will allow more Floridians than ever before the opportunity to learn about the unique redistricting process, even if they cannot participate as much as they previously could. A small win, but a win nonetheless.

An Enigmatic Future

So far, 19 Democrats have signed a pledge to ensure transparency in the redistricting process. Rep. Joe Geller, D-Hollywood, and Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, have even introduced a bill that would get rid of the exemption that prevents redistricting plans from being available as public records, significantly increasing transparency. However, with Democrats being an ignored minority, it is unlikely that this bill will pass as there is only so much they can do.

Yet, it is still unclear exactly what does seem likely. 

Florida is one of the biggest unknowns in national redistricting. Despite no on-the-road hearings and less time for map drawing, the new website and reassurances from public servants open some doors for public participation and hope for a fair process, even as others close. 

Right now, the process is not as fair as it could be, possibly leading to maps as distorted as those drawn up 10 years ago. The process is also not as unfair as it could be, which may prove to be a stepping stone to a fairer system free from partisan bias.

When the legislature begins to redraw districts beginning on Jan. 11, 2022, there will be many questions; the only way to get definitive answers will be to wait and see what the finalized maps look like. Only then — when the maps are revealed — will Floridians know what their political representation will entail for the next 10 years.

Check out other recent articles from Florida Political Review here.

Featured image: State Representative Chris Sprowls (R-Dunedin) (now Speaker) converses with fellow Representatives Jason Fischer (R-Mandarin) and Danny Burgess (R-Zephyrhills) (now Senator and Redistricting Committee member) in 2017 on the House Floor. Unmodified photo by and used under the public domain (https://bit.ly/3BcUu2F)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: