Senate kicks off redistricting process

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TALLAHASSEE — Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues said Monday he wants the Florida Legislature to avoid the “shadow process” that occurred in 2012 when lawmakers drew new political district lines that were rejected by the Florida Supreme Court.

The Estero Republican said changes have been implemented to avoid another battle with the court and that the public will be able to provide input on how congressional and legislative lines should be shifted.

But, as the once-a-decade redistricting process kicks off in the Capitol this week, no decision has been made on whether lawmakers will travel around the state or even hold virtual forums to gather input from Floridians on prospective boundary changes.

“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during Monday’s committee meeting. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”

A decade ago, state lawmakers had more time to work on the creation of new congressional and legislative boundaries, which are based upon U.S. Census Bureau population data. This year’s census numbers were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he hopes Republican legislative leaders are considering holding meetings outside of Tallahassee to hear from the public about the high-stakes maps. But Rouson said he remains concerned about the limited access that Floridians — including many people who may not be able to travel to the Capitol — might encounter in the process.

“I think we should be as open and transparent and interactive as possible, given this truncated time frame that we’re talking about today,” Rouson told reporters after Monday’s meeting.

The redistricting process, expected to be a major focus of the 2022 legislative session, will be the second time state lawmakers craft legislative and congressional districts following the passage of “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments approved by Florida voters in 2010.

The amendments, which were designed to prohibit partisan gerrymandering or maps that favor incumbent elected officials, led the Florida Supreme Court to overturn congressional and state Senate maps initially proposed a decade ago.

Rodrigues said he intends to rely on lessons learned from the last process, in which the court indicated it would defer to the Legislature’s decision-making to craft districts based upon geometric compactness, consistent use of political and geographic boundaries, equal population, and functional analysis of minority districts.

“Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting,” Rodrigues said. “I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade, is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”

As they did a decade ago, Republicans control both the House and Senate as the districts are being drawn.

But the Florida Supreme Court since then has become more conservative, with two justices who dissented in overturning the Legislature’s proposed districts during the last go-around now in the court’s majority.

A decision could be made by next week regarding whether public meetings will be held outside of Tallahassee, Rodrigues told reporters Monday. But the GOP leader said he’s not sure it makes sense to conduct such meetings.

“The pieces of information that came out of that traveling roadshow were communities of interest, that is where the public came to us and said, ‘Here are the communities of interest that you need to keep together,’” Rodrigues said after the meeting. “If you go back and look at the litigation from the last cycle, the court was very clear that we’re no longer allowed to use communities of interest because that was not articulated in the Fair Districts amendment.”

In another change from a decade ago, the House and Senate are using the same vendor to post redistricting data.

Rodrigues also said that individuals submitting an idea, comment or map must provide a signed form that includes their name and says whether they have received compensation for the proposal.

“Our staff will not review or consider publicly submitted comments, suggestions or maps for inclusion in their work product unless and until a senator asks them to do so in writing,” Rodrigues said.

Based upon the state’s increased population, lawmakers will have an extra congressional district to add to Florida’s delegation.

The central part of the state along the I-4 corridor could be the beneficiary of the added congressional district, in part because the region has at least two seats held by Democrats — District 7 in Seminole and Orange counties, held by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, and District 13 in Pinellas County, held by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist — that GOP lawmakers could target for a shift to a Republican-voter majority.

The House Redistricting Committee holds its first meeting on Wednesday and House redistricting subcommittee meetings are planned for Thursday.[cqmedia layout=”panel” content=”eyJwaG90byI6W3sibWVkaWFfdHlwZSI6InBob3RvIiwicGhvdG9faWQiOiI2ODc0IiwicGhvdG9fY2FwdGlvbiI6IiIsInBob3RvX2NyZWRpdCI6IiJ9XSwidmlkZW8iOltdLCJmaWxlIjpbXX0=”]