Senate District 15 is half again as populous as it was last decade. A half dozen congressional districts in Florida remain short of the ideal population. The state is also home to the fastest growing metropolitan area in the county, namely The Villages.
Those are among some findings lawmakers are discussing as legislative committee meetings launch ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session.
As the Senate begins the work of redrawing boundaries for now 28 U.S. House districts and every seat in the Florida Legislature, the facts will shape dialogue and Florida’s political boundaries. But lawmakers also expect most any outcome will be tested in the courts.
As one of the most bitterly partisan processes of prior Sessions kicked off Monday, senators leading redistricting efforts offered hopeful optimism. At the first meeting of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, leaders on both sides expressed a commitment to drafting legal maps that will withstand constitutional challenges.
“We will conduct ourselves in a manner consistent with state law, free from any hand of unconstitutional intent,” said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the Republican chair of the committee.
“I look forward to working with staff to develop constitutional maps that are fair to everybody,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat.
For now, members started the process showering praise on one another for reputations of fairness. Looming over the matter, though, remains the court battle that ultimately upended most of the work on redistricting by lawmakers a decade ago.
Once a decade, lawmakers, following the release of U.S. Census data, redraw maps to keep relatively equal populations. But the Supreme Court tossed maps developed in 2012, the first time lawmakers redrew maps after passage of the Fair Districts amendment to Florida’s constitution, and said lawmakers allowed partisan interference in the process. While the House maps were left intact, courts redrew lines for the Senate and Congress in 2016.
Rodrigues, who has acknowledged the last process didn’t comply with the law, says measures will be taken this year to “safeguard against the shadow process that occurred in the last cycle.” He also stressed that for better or worse, the fact the last redistricting process was ultimately litigated all the way to the state Supreme Court at least offers some legal guardrails on the process now.
“Fortunately we now have insight into the expanded scope of review and how courts interpreted and applied standards of redistricting,” he said.
Lawsuits ferreted out maps submitted anonymously by political consultants that favored one political party or another. But judges also clarified a level of scrutiny that will be offered on issues like connecting communities of interest and forming majority minority political districts.
Much of the first meeting of the committee centered around technical aspects of redistricting. That included clarity that political districts must be continuous. All data comes from the best estimates in population as of April 2020, and college students and prison inmates will be reflected on the map based on where they lived at that time regardless of where they live now.
And while the Legislature dissolved the city of Weeki Wachi last year, the Census still includes the city of mermaids, population of nine, on the map.
Some facts already jump out in the process. While the current maps were drawn in 2016, populations already appear so unbalanced today lawmakers couldn’t leave those lines in tact if they wanted to. Osceola County’s population leapt 45% since the last Census. As a result, Senate District 15 has grown by 241,00 people, an enormous amount considering the ideal population for a Senate district this decade will be 538,455.
Similarly, House District 44 saw a similar 51% growth, about 80,000 people. That difference would justify about a half a House district on its own, with the ideal population for Florida’s 120 House districts this year set at 179,485.
The Legislature needs to get every Senate and House district roughly the same size, but needs to balance U.S. House districts within just one person differences. The ideal size of a congressional jurisdiction in Florida is 769,221. The most growth there could be found in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which saw an increase of 259,000 over the decade.
In the upper chamber, Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, will chair a congressional subcommittee while Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, heads the panel that will draft legislative lines for the House and Senate.
In the House, Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Brach Republican, heads the lower chamber’s Redistricting Committee.
An interactive website will launch by months end, and since both chambers will use the same software vendor this year, there should be consistency in data products made available to the public.
For now, Rodrigues doesn’t know if there will be a statewide tour to gather input, as there was 10 years ago, or if virtual events will be organized. All that’s on the table still.