Florida Republicans debate how far to push congressional remap

Florida Republican legislators are debating how far they can press their luck as they consider changes to U.S. House district boundaries in a state that will add a 28th seat to its delegation. 

The state House of Representatives on Thursday will begin considering proposed maps that would virtually ensure Republicans maintain a majority in the state’s congressional delegation for the next decade.  

The state Senate has proposed eight of their own versions, most of which would give Republicans a distinct advantage — but which have received a much more welcome reception, from both minority Democrats and anti-gerrymandering activists. 

The two divergent approaches come after a decade of litigation and lawsuits brought on by twin constitutional amendments passed in 2010, when voters approved changes to the decennial redistricting process meant to reduce the influence of partisan politics in an inherently partisan exercise. 

The legislature ran afoul of some of those new requirements introduced by the Fair Maps amendments, and the state Supreme Court forced legislators to draw new district lines in the middle of the last decade. 

Now, some legislators — especially those in the Senate — have likely decided they do not want to go through another round of legal battles. Several top Republicans with knowledge of the process declined to comment on the record, for fear of becoming embroiled themselves.

“Some of them figure that they’re likely to risk a subpoena if they talk about it at all,” said Matthew Isbell, a Florida-based Democratic redistricting expert. “Even with the more conservative [state Supreme] Court, do you really want to go through trials, do you really want to go through depositions?”

“I think they’re going way out of their way to make sure that whatever litigation occurs is short-lived and meritless,” said Nelson Diaz, a Republican lobbyist and former chair of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party. “They are complying with the amendment the best they can. There will be litigation, Democratic groups will come out and sue no matter what, but the leaders are trying to make sure that those lawsuits are as meritless as possible.”

But a different strategy is guiding congressional district maps proposed by the state House. The two maps legislators will consider Tuesday both put a heavy thumb on the scale for the GOP.

One plan drawn up by legislative staff would create 15 Republican-leaning seats and nine that favor Democrats. Three seats would be narrowly divided, with a Republican advantage.  

Another plan under consideration would give Republicans an edge in 16 districts and Democrats an advantage in nine; two seats currently held by Democrats would become virtual tossups. 

In both versions, a Miami-area district held by Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R) would be evenly divided between the two sides. And both versions propose making substantial changes in the Tampa and Orlando areas, jeopardizing Democratic districts currently held by Reps. Charlie Crist (D), who is running for governor, and Stephanie Murphy (D).  

The eight versions under consideration by Florida Senate Republicans would make less dramatic changes. They would also give Republicans a significant chance of maintaining control of the majority of U.S. House seats for the next decade to come, though without breaking up Crist’s or Murphy’s districts.

“The state Senate, both through its state House plan and its congressional drafts, really is trying not to run afoul of Fair Districts,” Isbell said. “Their congressional maps are maps of least change while accounting for the new district.”

Redistricting experts and nonpartisan analysts who value competition generally give better marks to the state Senate-produced versions.

In a statement, Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, called the Senate maps “a good starting point, accommodating the state’s population shifts without turning existing representation upside down.”

“Today, House Republicans are using new draft maps to show exactly how badly they can gerrymander the state. These maps do not reflect the population of Florida according to the latest census data, are not responsive to Florida’s voters, and were clearly drawn to completely tip the political balance in favor of Republicans,” Burton said.

Adam Kincaid, Burton’s counterpart who heads the National Republican Redistricting Trust, declined to comment, citing “Florida’s unconstitutional Fair Districts rules against 1st Amendment speech.”

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave four of the state Senate maps B grades, while both House-produced versions get F grades. 

“The draft congressional redistricting maps released by the Florida House this week are reflective of the Florida GOP’s clear and deliberate plan to cripple democracy in the Sunshine State,” said Manny Diaz, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. “They are now moving towards distorting our congressional districts for partisan gain over the next decade.”

Litigation over the maps is all but certain, as in many other states, regardless of whether the House or Senate versions become law. Marc Elias, the Democratic election law expert spearheading most of his party’s challenges to redistricting lines, has already sued Florida this year, over a package of voting reforms Democrats contend go too far in limiting access to the ballot box.

In an editorial published in October, two redistricting experts at the University of Florida, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith, alleged the legislature was violating transparency requirements under the Fair Districts amendments, which could open new map lines up to legal scrutiny. 

“[W]e see clear evidence that the Legislature is shielding data from the public’s eyes, information that would help the Legislature violate their constitutional obligations under Fair Districts,” McDonald and Smith wrote. “Florida may be the Sunshine State, but when it comes to redistricting, all the Legislature really wants Floridians to be is in the dark.”

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