Fair Districts leaders unimpressed with redistricting so far

FLORDIA REDISTRICTING (9)
A report card mostly gives Florida lawmakers failing grades.

The Fair Districts Coalition issued a report card Tuesday on Florida’s handling of the once-a-decade redistricting process underway. By the organization’s assessment, lawmakers earn a ‘D’ on some fronts, but fail on most.

From transparency on the map-making process to collection of public data, the letter ‘F’ besmirches the process the most.

“We have yet to see any evidence that it’s going to change, though we are hoping to see that,” said Ellen Freidin, CEO and general counsel for Fair Districts Now. “We keep calling it to their attention and giving suggestions to be more transparent.”

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, chair of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, openly expressed irritation at the poor assessment. He labeled them a “Democrat-funded partisan entity.”

“It is no surprise they are unhappy with the process we have designed to guard against partisan influence,” he said. “They weren’t happy yesterday, they’re not happy today and they won’t be happy tomorrow. But we are going to remain focused on creating a constitutional map.”

Legislative leadership has yet to respond to concerns specifically raised in the report card. But Senate President Wilton Simpson, Senate President-Designate Kathleen Passidomo and Democratic Leader Lauren Book did jointly issue a memo promising to take all input and act accordingly.

“We are certain some of this feedback will be productive and appropriate to consider as we undertake our once-in-a-decade responsibility to produce constitutional maps,” the memo reads. “However, we also want to make sure Senators are aware that you may receive questions that have nothing to do with the constitutional standards we have sworn an oath to uphold and are instead full of political analysis and queries about our own future political ambitions.”

Fair Districts sponsored a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 prohibiting the Legislature from drawing maps in ways that favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent. But it’s hard to tell if staff will act in compliance with those restrictions without seeing the cartography in action.

The group wants all map drafting to be visible to the public in real time, and calls the Legislature out for failing to do so now.

“Computer screens used to draft maps should be viewable online and available to any interested person in real time at every stage of the process from computer setup to completion and passage of maps,” the report card states. Freidin said since the technology exists to easily provide a lens into the room, it should be available.

Another area earning an ‘F’? The organization wants all mapping data available publicly in a usable format.

“Leaders of the redistricting and reapportionment committees have claimed that the public will be drawing maps with the same data as legislators,” the report reads. “However, without the ability to download the data the public cannot confirm what data they are actually using.”

Rather, the state has plugged the data into the backend of the FloridaRedistricting.gov website, and said both the public and staff will use that software to generate maps. To date, at least 40 maps have been uploaded, but it’s impossible to tell if the data available to staff is also being utilized by the public in full.

But the biggest area where the Legislature has fallen short has been in the solicitation and gathering of public input.

“The Legislature has taken the position that the public comment feature on its website satisfies this concern. However, public comment made by dropping a note or even a map into a website is worth nothing unless it is genuinely considered by decision makers,” the report argues.

That echoes concerns raised by Democrats on redistricting panels in the House and Senate. Leaders in the minority caucus have called for virtual town halls and gathering of public input from members of the public.

Fair Districts officials did not fail lawmakers in every subject. On preserving public records and communications, which would provide an important resource when defending maps in court, the group gave a ‘D.’ It still said exemptions in Florida law to redistricting documents and draft maps need to be repealed.

“Hopefully this would restore public trust that was lost in the last redistricting cycle,” the report card reads.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2015 ruled the House and Senate violated the Fair Districts amendment when it drew congressional and Senate boundaries in 2012. Lawmakers have expressly said they want to avoid the same fate.

Leaders acknowledge those in charge of the process today have outwardly noted mistakes in the process, such as the consideration of maps planted by third parties with partisan interests.

But saying the process should be better and conducting a better process remain clearly different things, Freidin said.

“You have to remember 10 years ago, legislative leaders were talking how this was the most open, interactive, transparent, fair redistricting ever in the history of the Unites States of America,” she said. “We know the rest is history. It was nothing like that.”

When the first maps from staff come out, Freidin said, that will offer the best glimpse into whether this process goes any better.

“We are going to be watching very carefully and looking at the maps very carefully,” she said. “They can talk, but really the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in the maps.”

“We are going to be watching very carefully and looking at the maps very carefully,” she said. “They can talk, but really the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in the maps.”

There, legislative leaders as well said a commitment to following the Fair Districts amendment and other laws is expected, or the maps will not be considered acceptable. “We expect staff to release draft maps that comply with both Tier 1 and Tier 2 constitutional standards, as unanimously directed by the Committee on Reapportionment,” reads the joint memo from Senate leaders.

View the Redistricting Report Card here.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


2 comments

  • Ron Ogden

    November 10, 2021 at 5:11 am

    They’re unlikely to agree to anything they don’t draw themselves, and maybe not even that.

    • Paul

      November 11, 2021 at 9:16 am

      Very true. Democrats also cannot ‘take back’ the Florida House and Senate, or affect the balance of our Congressional Delegation without some degree of disenfranchisement of minority voters, which BTW, Democrats were perfectly comfortable with when they held the majority. This is a conundrum for them, and the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ that they don’t want to talk about.

Comments are closed.


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