House advances first redistricting map, but Democrats have many questions

The Florida House Subcommittee on Legislative Redistricting voted 13-7 on Friday, Jan. 21, to advance the proposed House map to the full committee. The configuration is expected to produce 71 Republican districts and 49 Democratic seats.
·7 min read

Democrats could gain as many as seven seats in the Florida House of Representatives and Republicans could retain a solid majority under a redistricting map approved Friday along partisan lines by a state House subcommittee.

But despite their numeric gains, the proposal was criticized by Democrats who questioned several of the decisions made by staff, including why they did not maximize minority districts when it appeared shifts in population would allow for it.

““The state House map before you today is a constitutionally compliant work,’’ said state Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican who chairs the subcommittee. He said the plan creates 18 constitutionally protected Black districts and 12 protected Hispanic districts while doing a better job of keeping communities whole than the current map adopted by legislators a decade ago.

The House Subcommittee on Legislative Redistricting voted 13-7 to send the map to the full committee. No amendments were offered and there was little debate.

But unlike 2012, when the Legislature’s House redistricting map was the only one to escape being challenged in court, the House appeared to be coming under the same criticism the Florida Senate has faced this year as it passed its state Senate and congressional maps on Thursday.

“Given the growth of Black and brown people in the State of Florida, is it possible there could have been more access seats created to have complete representation of those populations, or better representation of those populations?” asked Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-West Palm Beach.

The answer, said Leda Kelly, the staff director of the House Redistricting Committee, is that in areas where they saw specific population growth among minorities, such as in the Orlando region, they did a so-called functional analysis to make sure they were maximizing minority voting strength. But elsewhere in the state, she said, if there wasn’t an existing minority district to protect, “it’s inappropriate to do it.”

Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat, also focused on the lack of data provided to analyze where to protect minority voters.

“We were provided 30 districts in which we were provided data sets. Why wasn’t it provided on all the other 90 seats?” she asked.

Byrd answered: “We only perform functional analysis on the 30 protected seats. We don’t perform it on all the seats.”

The House’s process

Several court orders over the last decade led to revisions to both the state Senate and congressional maps and those rulings now shape the contours of how far legislators in both the House and Senate can go to draw districts that give them a partisan or incumbent advantage.

In an effort to avoid another lawsuit, Republicans tried to tightly control the redistricting process, erecting barriers to public input to avoid being accused of allowing partisans to infiltrate the process as they did a decade ago. They also refrained from reporting the partisan breakdown of all the districts in the maps.

According to an analysis of the House’s proposed map, using 2020 general elections data, The Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the number of guaranteed Republican seats would drop from 78 to 71 if the 2020 election were held today, including three Republican-leaning swing districts. The number of Democratic seats would rise from 42 to 49, including four Democrat-leaning swing districts.

Voter advocacy groups, such as LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the League of Women Voters of Florida, accused House leaders and staff of failing to do the kind of in-depth analysis needed to ensure they were drawing all the districts needed to protect minority voting strength, as required by the Fair District standards of the state Constitution.

“The Florida legislators’ proposed maps ignore dramatic Latino population growth over the last decade,’’ said Miranda Galindo, senior counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. She also said the state’s redistricting process was inaccessible for non-English speakers, especially because the committee failed to provide translation services and virtual testimony during the pandemic.

“The end result has been a dilution of Latino political power,” she said.

Despite the numeric gains for them in the House map, Democrats had criticisms.

Matt Isbell, a Democrat redistricting expert, called the House map a “modest gerrymander.” He pointed to a series of decisions that he believes are signs that House leaders and staff made choices intentionally intended to benefit Republicans:

In Jacksonville, the map packs Black voters into two districts when it could draw a third Black-access seat in Southwest Duval County, in increasingly diverse suburbs.

In Tampa Bay, the map creates House District 62, a sprawling Black-majority district that links communities in South Pinellas by crossing Tampa Bay into Hillsborough County.

A better alternative, Isbell argues, would be to keep the current House District 70 that stretches from South Pinellas to Sarasota, a community that is rapidly becoming minority majority, and create a second minority district along Interstate 75 in eastern Hillsborough County.

But House staff analyst Jason Poreda defended the proposed HD 62 because it keeps the district in two counties, rather than sprawling across four counties.

And in Alachua County, Isbell said Gainesville and the region is split three ways to avoid creating two Democratic seats.

Isbell commends the House for keeping North Miami-Dade’s Haitian community together in two districts, similar to the current map. And in Orlando, the map makes no effort “to short-circuit” Democratic growth. Instead of limiting the number of Democratic districts, it increases them, including making one additional Hispanic district in the region, he said.

Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, a Hollywood Democrat, asked why the map split up Miami Gardens, the largest Black city in the state. Byrd said there is still time to change that.

Woodson also pressed Byrd about why they hadn’t used additional Census data, such as the American Communities Survey, “to create a Haitian-Creole opportunity district” in South Florida. He answered that the courts require them to use only the Census data, not the ACS data, which does not have language-based data at the block level.

Democrats have more questions

Rep. Kevin Chambliss, a Homestead Democrat, asked if the number of protected minority districts changed or stayed the same when the proposed map is compared to the map drawn in 2012. Byrd said he didn’t know and staff would have to get back to him with an answer.

And Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, asked why Byrd and staff hadn’t provided answers to a detailed set of questions he presented to them in a Jan. 7 letter, asking for specifics on how and why they arrived at the minority districts they drew.

The parade of questions left Democrats unsatisfied.

“I do find it really alarming that we were unable to get answers” to those questions, said Rep. Kristen Aston Arrington, D-Kissimmee in voting against the map.

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, criticized the committee for a lack of transparency.

“There was not one chart to show any percentage of what was the decrease of the voting age population of Hispanics, and or African Americans and I think that really tells you what the focus has been,’’ she said. “Where is the evidence of their analysis in minority districts? Where is the racially-polarized voting data?” And where is the data showing how many citizens versus non-citizens are in each district?

“Our Florida Constitution does not tell you that you cannot look at other sources of information,’’ she said. “Our Constitution tells you to do the job.”

Byrd urged committee members to keep working on alternatives.

“There’s still time for work on the map once it goes to the full committee,’’ he said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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