By DOTTY NIST
The redistricting process initiated by the Florida Legislature in summer 2011 has culminated in the adoption of redistricting plans by the Florida Legislature. These were plans for state legislative and U.S. Congressional redistricting.
The Florida Constitution mandates redistricting every 10 years in order to equalize population numbers in U.S. Congressional, state Senate and state House districts. Due to population growth in Florida over the 10-year period, the state’s number of U.S. House of Representatives districts was increased from 25 to 27.
On Feb. 9, the Senate voted to approve redistricting plans that had been approved by the House four days earlier. The Senate vote had been the final step prior to the legislative redistricting plans being delivered to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Congressional plan to Governor Rick Scott.
In addition to previously-existing state and federal redistricting requirements, for the first time guidance over the redistricting process was exerted by new measures, Amendments 5 and 6, which were approved by Florida voters in November 2010. These have been referred to as the “Fair District” amendments.
Amendment 5 directed that, for legislative districts, “districts may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.” Amendment 6 set the same standards for Congressional redistricting.
In May 2010, Amendment 6 had been challenged in court by U.S. Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D-FL) and U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL). The representatives had maintained that the measure set unworkable standards for redistricting and diluted minority representation. A Miami judge had ruled against their original lawsuit, and most recently, at the end of January, their appeal was denied in federal court in Atlanta.
Prior to work on the redistricting plans getting started in House and Senate committees, legislators conducted public hearings in 26 areas of the state in which more than 1,600 citizens participated. The lawmakers encouraged attendees to comment on their idea of the meaning of fair districts. As the redistricting process proceeded, it remained open to public input via mail telephone, email, Twitter, Facebook, and direct presentations to legislators. More than 150 proposed redistricting maps were submitted by the public for consideration. The redistricting committees of both chambers of the legislature maintained redistricting web sites through which information was provided on the progress of the effort.
A focus on geographical boundaries and other factors rather than on maintaining incumbents has resulted in incumbents in many areas being put out of their district or ending up in the same district with another incumbent. Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, has estimated that approximately one-third of House members are impacted in this manner by the redistricting plan approved for the House.
This was the case for State Representative Marti Coley (R-Marianna). Since 2005 Coley has represented District 7, which currently extends from coastal portions of Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay counties on the west, to all of Calhoun and Liberty counties, to portions of Jackson, Gadsden, Wakulla and Leon counties to the east.
However, the approved redistricting plan for the House moves District 7 eastward, starting it on the west with Calhoun and Gulf counties and extending it east through Liberty, Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Taylor and Lafayette counties.
The new redistricting plan puts all of Walton County into District 5, which is currently held by State Representative Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna). The plan also extends District 5 east to encompass Holmes, Washington, and Jackson counties, including the Marianna residence of Coley.
In a Feb. 9 press release, Drake announced that, while his plan was to seek the District 5 seat in 2014, he would step aside and support Coley for a final term in the House representing District 5. In the release, Coley expressed appreciation to Drake for the trust he had placed in her and stated her eagerness to campaign hard for another term in the House.
Like the approved redistricting plan for the Florida House of Representative, the new plan for the U.S. House of Representatives eliminates split representation for Walton County.
The new U.S. Congressional redistricting plan eliminates an arm of District 2 that now extends into south Walton County from that Panama City-based district—and puts all of Walton County into District 1, currently held by U.S. Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL).
As far as Walton County is concerned, the legislature’s redistricting plan makes no changes for Florida Senate districts. The bulk of the county, the portion north of the Choctawhatchee Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, is to remain part of Senate District 2, currently held by State Senator Greg Evers (R-Baker) The coastal portion of the county is to remain in District 4, currently represented by State Senator Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), Senate president designate.
The legislative redistricting plans will be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. The Congressional redistricting plan is subject to approval by the governor and will also undergo federal review for compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Upon approval of the redistricting plans by the Senate on Feb. 9, the Florida Democratic Party announced a legal challenge to the Congressional redistricting plan. Filed in Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, the lawsuit alleges that the plan favors the Republican Party and incumbents, contrary to the Fair District Amendments.
Plaintiffs include the League of Women Voters of Florida, the National Council of La Raza, Common Cause Florida, and four individual plaintiffs.
Plans are for legal review of the plans and any legal challenges to be concluded in time for any required changes to be made to the maps by June, allowing time for candidates to qualify for state and federal offices in the 2012 election.
The approved maps are available for viewing online at www.floridasenate.gov/redistricting or www.floridaredistricting.org.