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Florida Senate remapping plan receives some pushback over Tampa Bay area redistricting

Florida Senate Subcommittee on Reapportionment
A Florida Senate subcommittee's recommended plan for the chamber's districts in the Tampa Bay area.

A Florida Senate subcommittee has recommended its plan for what the chamber’s districts would look like over the next decade.

The two nearly identical proposed state Senate maps—S8046 and S8050—would give Republicans a 23-to-17-seat advantage, based on the 2020 presidential election results.

Lawmakers plan to focus heavily on the once-a-decade remapping process throughout the 60-day legislative session, which starts on Tuesday, Jan. 11.

The state Senate and House are in charge of drawing their respective district maps. The two chambers must come to an agreement on the state’s congressional districts.

Some Democrats on the subcommittee argued stretching Blue Senate District 19 across Tampa Bay to pick up African-American voters in southern St. Petersburg wasn’t necessary to achieve equal representation.

Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) explained during the subcommittee meeting on Monday that drawing the district so that it's solely within Hillsborough County would achieve the same goal.

“We did that in District 19,” Bracy said. “We could’ve done that in the district next to it if we didn’t cross the bay.”

Under the first subsection of the Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution (known as Tier 1 standards), lawmakers may not draw state legislative districts "with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent." District maps may not deny or abridge "the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process" or "diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice."

The second subsection (known as Tier 2 standards) requires districts that follow existing geographical boundaries are equal in population and are compact. Those requirements may not conflict with Tier 1 standards, which is what some Democrats say crossing the bay would do.

“The legislature’s insisting this needs to be done for racial representation," said Matthew Isbell, a redistricting expert and former consultant for the Democratic Party. "Folks like myself argue that it’s actually being done to pack Democratic voters to prevent a lean Democratic seat in southern Pinellas.”

Tampa-area Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, chair of the subcommittee, explained drawing the maps differently would diminish the ability of African-American voters in southern Pinellas County to elect a candidate of their choice.

“Staff did look at those options, there was a significant number of potential voters that would be disenfranchised under ‘not crossing the bay,’” Burgess said. “To avoid that potential diminishment, there was just no way to make that work practically.”

The subcommittee's Staff Director Jay Ferrin explained drawing an exclusively-minority district in Hillsborough County would result in a "fairly spidery, non-compact configuration there."

Ferrin says Black voters in southern Pinellas County "would not be able to control the primary numerically and that would potentially constitute diminishment" without District 19 stretching across the bay.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.