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Monday, March 27, 2023

House moves ahead with legislative map amid accusations of a secret process

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Florida representatives turned a map for 120 state House districts into legislation and prepared it for a Wednesday floor vote. But Democrats left discussions angry at answers Republicans refused to provide on who crafted the cartography.

Lawmakers debated a map (H 8013) for roughly three hours before taking a clerical step on a near party-line vote. That step? Maps of House districts and 40 new state Senate districts (S 8060) have now been combined into a single bill (SB 100).

That bit of housekeeping took place only after a lengthy debate about minority access to democracy, the transparency of drafting maps, and the Legislature’s general treatment of non-English speakers.

The legislative redistricting process awaits one last vote in the House as the once-a-decade process governing the Florida Legislature’s political environment draws to a close. That should take place Wednesday before the Senate takes up the bill again with the House map included.

In one last round of debate about the maps, Democrats relitigated concerns about whether the map includes enough majority-minority and effective minority districts, what parties had a role in drafting maps, and why no data from the federal government on language minorities directly helped to shape lines.

Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican and chair of the House Redistricting Committee, defended the process and expressed confidence the House maps were legal.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, allowed few in the House to question that, mainly when it came to any questions about the map’s origins. He squashed any questions about how lines on maps were drawn and told members to limit discussions to the map itself.

During debate, Leek demurred on any questions surrounding how a Senate map approved last month came together.

“The long-standing tradition between the chambers is the House is responsible for crafting the House map, and the Senate is responsible for the Senate map,” he said.

While lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, questioned that considering the House took a vote to honor such a tradition, little time went into discussing a Senate map.

The most extended debate surrounded the number of minority access districts on the maps. The proposed House map includes 18 Black districts and 12 Hispanic ones; the exact number appeared on the House map produced by the Legislature in 2012. Democrats questioned why no new minority seats made the cut considering the explosive Latino growth in Florida.

“I know we’ve done quite a bit to make sure there’s no know retrogression,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Windermere Democrat, “but from what I can see, there is no progression.”

Leek explained that the primary concern for cartographers on House staff was to ensure the ability of minority communities to elect a Representative of their choosing was not diminished. Voter performance analyses were done on every district on the existing map to see that Black or Hispanic voters still had political control in as many seats as they did 10 years ago.

In fact, staff found that one South Florida district previously considered a minority access district no longer acted as a Hispanic district. However, another district in Central Florida now counts as a Latino district based on growth.

But Democrats question why — when Hispanic voters now make up one in four Floridians — Hispanic districts represent 10% of the state’s House seats.

More personal accusations surrounded the methodology of drafting maps. After Leek mentioned consulting with outside counsel, Democrats asked for a list of all attorneys consulted. Leek referenced GrayRobinson, a firm hired to present on legal guardrails around the process during early committee meetings. But Sprowls stopped questions about any further consultation. Geller, meanwhile, inferred most lawmakers knew little of who created the maps. Leek has repeatedly credited three House staffers tasked with creating maps ahead of workshops.

After the floor debate, Rep. Dan Daley, a Broward Democrat and ranking member of the House Legislative Redistricting Subcommittee, told the press that most lawmakers were wholly disconnected from the process. By his telling, Democrats were told policy discussions must await the first release of maps. But when those came out, leadership stressed they were not to be treated as anything but education workshop maps.

“Then when real maps came, we were told we were part of policy decisions,” he said.

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers concede litigation will continue around the maps. Most immediately, the reapportionment legislation goes for a high-level review in front of the Florida Supreme Court. Leek has said he wants the maps delivered early in Session because if the court takes a full allotted 30 days to review maps and directs lawmakers to address problems, that could still be done before the Legislature goes into recess.

On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court already opened a case in anticipation of filings regarding the legislative maps. Attorney General Ashley Moody will petition the court for a declaratory judgment on the maps’ validity. Once she does that, any groups questioning the validity of the cartography have five days themselves to petition the court themselves.

Of note, the House debate on legislative maps unfolded simultaneously to major developments in creating a congressional map of 28 Florida congressional districts. Gov. Ron DeSantis sought an opinion from the Florida Supreme Court on the legality of a North Florida congressional district spanning Black communities from Tallahassee to Jacksonville. That prompted the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee to cancel a meeting on any draft proposals from the lower chamber. The Senate approved a congressional map, which includes a district analogous to the North Florida jurisdiction in question.

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