Florida's redistricting process will have far-reaching consequences for the next decade

Updated: 18 hours ago

VoxPopuli’s primer on the process, including what it is, what it means to you and what the next several months will entail

by Dibya Sarkar, Managing Editor Sept. 15, 2021


Recently, the Florida Legislature named about four dozen Republicans and two dozen Democratic lawmakers (including state Reps. Kamia Brown of Ocoee and Geraldine Thompson of Windermere and state Sen. Randolph Bracy of Ocoee) to oversee the process of carving the state into 28 congressional districts, 40 state Senate districts and 120 state House districts. The move marks the beginning of redistricting, a complicated and far-reaching endeavour that determines the state’s electoral or political districts. This is important because redrawing lines could change the voting makeup of a district and therefore its identity, political loyalties and priorities — giving one party an advantage over another.


While many people understand the census and its purpose, Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters for Florida, said in a recent interview that people don’t realize redistricting’s lasting impact.


“Everything that touches our lives is impacted by decision makers,” said Scoon, pointing to healthcare, education and environmental protection as well as economic drivers like major projects invested in districts. “And who gets to vote for different decision makers determines who are the decision makers. And the decisions that these people make — based on the lines that are drawn — last for 10 years.”


For example, decisions made now when children are five years old, she said, will stay with them until they are 15. “A lot of marriages don’t last 10 years,” she quipped.


Katie Vicsik, Florida director for the nonprofit All on the Line, which seeks to educate people about redistricting, said the process has to be done correctly because, unfortunately, Florida has a history of gerrymandering. “We had to operate under unfair maps for years where it really disenfranchises voters,” said Vicsik whose organization is the campaign and education arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “If you actually want representation you have to make sure that the maps are fair.”

But just what is redistricting and the process in Florida? How do lawmakers determine how state and congressional boundaries are drawn? How is the public involved? Are there laws governing the process? What happens if there is a dispute? Could your current representative be “redistricted” out if the political geography lines are rearranged? Can you do anything to influence the process?


This is a short primer about redistricting, the census and what you can expect over the next year. It will cover the process for drawing state and congressional districts, not local districts, which is a distinctly separate endeavor and will be covered in a future story.

THE BASICS

What is the census?


Since 1790, the U.S. has been required by the Constitution to count every individual of every household across the country. The count shows not only the total number of people living in the U.S., but population shifts from one area to another. This is important for apportionment as well as the allocation of billions of dollars in federal funding to states, counties and localities for schools, hospitals, infrastructure and other programs and services.


The 2020 count was complicated by the pandemic and then cut short in October by the Trump administration, a move that was supported by the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Critics argued that it would undermine the integrity of the count.


What is apportionment?

Apportionment or reapportionment is simply defined as dividing the 435 U.S. House of Representative seats across the 50 states based on population. Each state gets one House seat and then additional seats are allocated proportionally based on population.


For instance, after the 2010 census, Florida gained two seats — to 27 total — based on a population that increased to 18.8 million. In 2020, Florida gained a 28th House seat with the increase in the state’s population. (View the U.S. Census Bureau’s historical apportionment map from 1910 to 2020 and its 2020 statistics.)


What is redistricting?


Redistricting is the process that state legislators conduct every 10 years to redraw political divisions or boundaries (whether federal, state, local or school) based on the census results. While many state legislatures — like Florida — have primary control of the redistricting process for both state legislative and congressional districts, some have advisory, backup or independent boards or commissions.


While the goal of redistricting is to create political districts of roughly equal populations, states have rules to ensure contiguity, compactness, minority representation, communities of interest and respect for existing political boundaries and/or geographical features.

THE FLORIDA COUNT

What did the 2020 census reveal about Florida’s demographic changes?


In April, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that showed Florida with a population of 21,538,187 in 2020, an increase of more than 2.7 million people — or 14.6 percent — from the 2010 census count. As a result, the state gained a 28th congressional seat.


Recently released census data showed that Florida’s racial makeup also changed. According to the recent census, 69 percent of residents identified themselves as white only, while 18 percent identified themselves as Black or African-American only, up from 16 percent in the 2010 census. Nine percent of Floridians identified themselves as multiracial, up 55 percent from the previous count.


THE FLORIDA PROCESS

How did the shortened 2020 count impact Florida’s redistricting process?


The 2020 census was already mired in controversy and problems before the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the counting or enumeration process for several months. With the Trump administration’s inconsistent policy and messaging, the U.S. Census Bureau wound up scaling back the count and missing its statutory deadline to deliver the data for the first time since the deadline was implemented in 1976. When the bureau released the U.S. population count and apportionment statistics in late April, the reporting delay caused a domino effect for the redistricting deadlines for several states.


The Florida Constitution requires that the state Legislature redraw congressional and legislative districts in the second year following each decennial census. State lawmakers will begin that process Jan. 11, 2022, the start of its regular session. But, this fall, the Legislature will hold interim committee meetings, including those that will conduct the redistricting and reapportionment.


However, Vicsik said Florida legislative leaders delayed naming members to the redistricting committees thereby likely shortening the public comment period this fall. “So, last time around, they had 26 public hearings across the state,” she said. “They’re not doing that this time around. And we, as the public, still have no idea how we’re going to be able to give input. That I do see as problematic ... puts us at a place where we’re not starting off very great.”


She’s also concerned that many legislators may not have had the time to get up to speed about the issue as well as the process. “Most elected officials have never redistricted before,” she said.

THE FAIR DISTRICTS AMENDMENTS


What are the Fair District amendments?


In November 2010 — after the 2010 census count was completed — Florida voters overwhelmingly approved state constitutional amendments that raised standards for redistricting or redrawing district lines so they didn’t favor incumbents, which has typically been the case in the past with gerrymandered districts. Among other things, the amendments say: “districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”


At the time, Fair Districts Flor