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

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

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 of 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Florida, the organization that spearheaded the campaign to get the Fair Districts Amendments approved, said such changes were needed because in the prior six years there were 420 elections for state senator and state representative but only three incumbents were defeated, a claim that Politifact rated as true. (Common Cause Florida provides more insight about the amendments.)On Nov. 2, 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 it 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.”

How did the Fair Districts Amendments impact Florida’s redistricting in 2012?

In short, it didn’t go well. After the 2010 census, Republican-dominated state House and Senate committees held more than two dozen public hearings about redrawing both congressional and state legislative districts in 2011. The following year, the Legislature submitted plans for the House and Senate legislative district lines as well as the congressional district lines. The Florida Supreme Court approved the House and congressional lines but rejected the Senate ones, saying several districts didn’t follow the standards set by the approved Fair Districts Amendments. Eventually, the Senate redrew its map, which was approved by the state high court. The U.S. Department of Justice also cleared the redistricting maps.

In 2014, a lawsuit was filed against the congressional map.

However, a Florida League of Women Voters-led coalition had sued the Legislature’s congressional district map, saying that it favored the GOP, which violated the state constitutional provisions. Scoon explained that legislators had promised transparency and to adhere to the Fair Districts Amendments that Floridians “overwhelmingly” supported. Republican legislators “literally, intentionally, basically lied to the people, went behind their backs and created maps that would keep a particular party in office and be harmful to racial minorities and to the other party,” said Scoon. In July 2014, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that two of the 27 congressional districts violated the standards and therefore the map was unconstitutional (read the League's 2014 press release here). The judge said the Legislature allowed partisan operatives to create a "secret, organized campaign" to undermine the redistricting process and violate the state Constitution, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Everything was resolved in 2015.

"In August 2014, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved, along party lines, new maps with the altered congressional districts, which were signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott. Judge Lewis also approved it. However, in July 2015, the Florida Supreme Court said the map was “tainted,” reversing Lewis’ decision to approve it and ordered changes to eight districts. In December, the high court approved a final map in a 5-2 vote. According to the Miami Herald, the court’s ruling validated the map drawn by the LWV-led coalition and approved by Lewis "after the Florida Legislature tried and failed to agree to a map in a special redistricting session."


Could redrawing district lines disadvantage or disfavor your incumbent representative?

There’s no way to know for sure until the Legislature approves a redistricting map. “We don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Scoon.

However, she added, there are certain standards to ensure that minority representation or access to the possibility of minority representation is achieved. In other words, if there was an effort to “crack” a community or district so that the voting power of racial or language minority groups then people could point to the Florida Constitution’s Fair Districts provisions and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits proposals that intentionally (or inadvertently) discriminate on the basis of race. “The dilution of minority voting power is a very high standard,” Scoon added. Vicsik said the last redistricting process created some “really good benchmark” congressional and state senate maps, which should permit legislators to “kind of edit them” based on the population shifts “without having to start the map[s] from scratch.” From that viewpoint, she said residents in those communities should feel hopeful about fair representation.

What are legislators promising this time around?

Both Scoon and Vicsik said lawmakers have again promised to adhere to the Fair Districts provisions. Instead of promising, lawmakers must show Floridians what exactly they will do, said Scoon, such as scheduling when and how they will get public input whether through virtual hearings, field meetings or some other method. “Don’t tell me, create a process,” she said. “It’s not good enough to have a call-in number where we just leave our names.”

Vicsik said elected officials need to gain the trust of Floridians by teaching citizens about the process and ensuring they show up and speak up. She said lawmakers know that people will be closely watching them and have promised to follow the state’s constitutional standards. “Last time around it was hard for them to even want to admit that they wanted to follow the Fair Districts Amendments,” she said. “So there’s been progress. Now we have to hold their feet to the fire and watch the process and make sure our voices are heard the entire time.”


What can you — a regular citizen — do to contribute to the redistricting process?

While the Legislature’s redistricting committees haven’t yet set the schedule for public hearings, Scoon said residents should look around and take note of the different communities — for example, a Hispanic neighborhood — in their municipality or area to ensure they stay intact and aren’t split, which could dilute their voting power. Residents can also obtain local maps of their cities and counties and mark the different communities so that when legislators begin getting recommendations for redrawing lines residents can submit comments or write letters to the editor regarding the integrity of any proposed redrawn lines.

“Locals know where people live. That’s one thing people can do,” said Scoon. “The other thing is write [to] their legislators and let them know … that they’re watching. My mother would always say, ‘You’ve got to demonstrate your power and you’ve got to demonstrate your willingness to take up action.’ That will dissuade some people from misbehaving. When people know you’re watching and checking in, it often engenders better behavior [otherwise] they think you’re asleep at the wheel.”

What is the Fair Districts Coalition doing to ensure a fair process?

Both the League of Women Voters and All on the Line are members of the Fair Districts Coalition, which also includes FairDistricts Now, Common Cause and seven other organizations. Vicsik said the coalition is asking every state legislator to go on the record to comply with the state constitution’s Fair Districts provisions by signing the coalition’s pledge. However, only 12 House lawmakers, including Geraldine Thompson (D) of Windermere, and seven senators have signed the pledge so far. All Democrats. “We’re not off to a great start,” said Vicsik. She was hopeful more will sign the pledge since the redistricting process gets closer within the next few weeks.

Vicsik said the coalition will ensure that the redistricting process is transparent. For example, she wants the public to have the time to review and comment on proposed maps. And, with the continuing pandemic, she said the Legislature needs to ensure that the public can participate through virtual platforms and make comments public so everyone can see them. She said legislators need to publicize a meeting or hearing well in advance because it’s hard for many to travel to Tallahassee on short notice.


Is it inevitable that the current redistricting process will be decided in the courts?

“I don’t know,” said Scoon. “We don’t like to prejudge and we don’t like to think that we have to use the limited and incredibly important resources of the judiciary … to enforce the law. But if that’s what we have to do, we’re willing to do it.”

Vicsik hopes that the Fair Districts provisions will be followed this time around, but she said her organization is “ready to fight this at every angle.”

Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice released a report on redistricting that said Florida is one of four states “likely to see fraught redistricting processes and could be at serious risk of gerrymandering and racially discriminatory maps.” In its appendix, the report said, while the Fair Districts Amendments provide “some guardrails” to curb “the most blatant abuses,” the Florida Supreme Court is “considerably more conservative” than the last redistricting process. “How vigorously the court will enforce those limits on gerrymandering in state law should Republicans decide again to aggressively gerrymander remains to be seen,” it said.

Soon after the 2020 census information was released, Politico reported in May that conservative and liberal organizations had already staked out ground and started lobbying state lawmakers ahead of the redistricting process. It also reported that both GOP-controlled chambers “hired staff to focus on redistricting and retained law firms in anticipation of forthcoming legal battles.”

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson

In an April 26 memo to members, Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby, wrote that he expected the Legislature would be able to complete the redistricting work during the 2022 regular session. Still, he warned lawmakers about potential legal issues.

“While we await the delivery of the census data, I again encourage all Senators to be aware that they may be compelled to produce records or be subject to questioning under oath about conversations with parties who may attempt to persuade the Legislature to pass maps that favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,” he wrote.


Sept. 15, 2021, 9:01 p.m. The story has been updated to clarify Katie Vicsik's comment that the last redistricting process created some good benchmark congressional and state senate maps that legislators canuse rather than start from scratch. A previous version indicated implied house maps were good benchmarks, as well. They are not and are considered gerrymandered, said Vicsik.


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