Landmark Trial Could Send Florida's Congressional Maps Back To The Drawing Board

May 24, 2014

A group of activists are asking a Florida judge to toss the state’s congressional voting maps. They argue the maps amount to gerrymandering—and that political operatives influenced state legislators to draw districts favoring one political group over another. Halfway through the trial legislative leaders, staffers and operatives are pointing the finger at each other.

Gerrymandering vs. Equal Access

Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s District Five  is the poster child for arguments against the state’s current congressional maps. Her district meanders South: from Jacksonville, down to the Orlando suburb of Sanford. Critics say the district was drawn to pull black and democratic-leaning voters from surrounding areas to protect Republican incumbents. Taking the stand in Tallahassee in a landmark redistricting trial, current and former  state officials have denied those claims.

“As I’ve tried to indicate, what we wanted to do was make decisions based on demographic data from the census bureau, not from political data," testified Senate President Don Gaetz. He was part of a small group of lawmakers appointed by each chamber to redraw state and congressional lines two years ago.

Gaetz argues district’s like Brown’s were drawn to comply with federal laws protecting minority voting rights. He says those rules trump a state constitutional amendment that districts be drawn fairly, not favor political parties, and adhere to city, county or natural boundaries. He says lawmakers responded to the public when drawing certain districts that favor groups  like African Americans and Hispanics.

“It was certainly one of the intentions of the Senate to respond favorably to the testimony from Latino justice and many others that we create an Hispanic-opportunity district in Central Florida," he said.

Ironically, one of those majority Hispanic districts elected Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson.

Attorney’s for the plaintiffs argue lawmakers didn’t check to make sure minorities had adequate representation in certain districts before drawing lines boosting their numbers. They say that has the effect of “bleaching” surrounding districts and making them more favorable to Republicans, and they allege that move conflicts with Florida’s so-called “Fair District’s Amendments,”  which are center-stage in the debate when it comes to political favors in the process.

Who Knew What, When?

The trial is exposing the network of lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists and how they work together behind closed doors and out of the public eye.

During testimony,  Republican strategist Mark Reichelderfer says he received drafts of Congressional maps before they were made public.

"I don’t know how I got that map sir," he said in response to a question about how he got possession of draft maps done by House and Senate staffers.

Reichelderfer got the maps from former House staffer Kirk Pepper, who worked under then-Speaker Dean Cannon. That's something current House Speaker Will Weatherford says should never have happened.

“I was disappointed in the decision Kirk made," he told reporters after testifying during the trial.

Transparency Isn't All It Seems

Legislative leaders argue the state’s 2010-2012 redistricting process was the most open in history. They point to the series of public meetings held across the state to gather input, and the system they set up to let the public submit maps. Weatherford says that, and the fact that several incumbent state and Congressional lawmakers all Republicans lost their seats in 2012—should be evidence that the group wasn’t influenced by politics.

“The proof is in the pudding on the map. Go look at it. Congressman David Rivera isn’t here anymore. Congressman Alan West isn’t here anymore. Congresswoman Sandy Adams isn’t here anymore...there are consequences for our map.

But whether that’s a compelling enough argument to keep the current maps in place is up to a judge to decide. If he rules against the state, Florida’s congressional lines could go back to the drawing board.