Most office workers by now have figured out how to attend staff meetings using Zoom or other virtual meeting platforms. Could opinions on redistricting reach lawmakers in Tallahassee the same way?
House Democrats say it’s imperative the once-a-decade process of redrawing Florida’s political boundaries becomes more open to the public. At a press conference Monday, intentionally conducted over Zoom, the minority caucus stressed the urgency of access.
“This is the public opportunity to draw back the curtain and see how the sausage is made,” said Rep. Dan Daley, ranking member of the House Legislative Redistricting Subcommittee. “Can’t we figure out some way to get this right and do a virtual tour of the state?”
It’s a matter Democratic members have raised repeatedly ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session. But Republican leadership in both the House and Senate have said the COVID-19 pandemic makes a tour of cities and communities similar to what happened a decade ago unfeasible this year.
That’s because of a couple of factors. In addition to concerns about large indoor meetings during a pandemic, something legislators want avoided at least when it comes to this singular topic, the pandemic greatly delayed the 2020 Census and the release of population data that by law provides the foundation for the redistricting process.
“I would say it’s going to be difficult to do a roadshow like anything you have seen in the past,” Rep. Tom Leek, chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said at the first House Redistricting Committee meeting in September. Rather, lawmakers will lean heavily on submissions through the state’s FloridaRedistricting.gov website.
Democrats said they don’t expect the same multistop gatherings of lawmakers and members of the public that occurred in 2011. Instead, some type of hybrid system can be used to provide access through home computers or at public locations.
“I may know where lines probably should go to keep communities together in Broward County, but I need to hear from people in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, everywhere all the way down to Key West,” said Evan Jenne, House Democratic Co-Leader.
Rep. Joe Geller, ranking Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee, said the availability of Zoom and any other video conferencing software should make it easier, not more difficult, to gather public opinions. He knows many Floridians lack access to high-speed internet, and more lack the savvy to log on.
For those individuals, he suggested days could be set aside to set up a digital station at locations around the state, perhaps at city halls or libraries, where individuals could travel somewhere and offer input. Lawmakers themselves would not even need to be in the same city as one another to hear the input.
“Everyone else can do it by themselves in their living room,” he said.
It’s notable that regardless of the meetings held around the state 10 years ago to receive direction from the public, the Florida Supreme Court found lawmakers instead acted on the work of bad actors, individuals who submitted maps anonymously that would benefit political parties and incumbents regardless of the explicit restrictions put in place by Florida’s then-new Fair Districts amendment.
So would allowing more remote access simply generate new avenues for shenanigans?
Rep. Kelly Skidmore, ranking Democrat of the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, rejected that argument.
“I don’t believe one supersedes the other,” she said. “Certainly there is a question of making sure information is coming from a real individual if you do it electronically or digitally.” She compared verification to a widely seen “I am not a robot” checkmark system used by Captcha software, or to other online screening methods.
“That’s no reason to stifle anyone who wants to participate from being able to have that access,” Skidmore said.
Asked if limiting input may simply be a way to ensure a low mass of public statements for courts to scrutinize, Democratic leaders said that’s a possibility. But generally, the Democrats in the virtual press conference praised Leek as a lawmaker with integrity.
That said, many acknowledged the process has already been dogged by rumors of pre-drawn maps that could create GOP opportunities in the next election, particularly regarding battleground districts like Florida’s 7th Congressional District. Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican, for example, shared maps months ago he suggested would make it easier for him to defeat incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Winter Park Democrat.
Skidmore said her committee has yet to see a formal map proposal come from Republican members of her committee.
Geller said he too hears rumors but would hope such questionable activity would not occur, or if it did, would be exposed before maps went into effect. Just as some of the maps drawn 10 years ago were eventually thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court, justice should eventually come to those who wrongly manipulate redistricting.