The Florida Republicans Who Couldn't Draw a Map

GOP leaders have tried—and failed—to come up with new congressional districts after the state’s highest court ruled their last effort was too favorable to their party.

Nancy Detert, a Republican state senator, listens in on a debate on how redistricting is to be handled during a special session of the Florida legislature. (Steve Cannon / AP)

When the Florida legislature convened for a special summer session earlier this month, lawmakers had, literally, one job: to redraw the state’s congressional districts after a court had thrown out the last map they came up with.

They failed. After two weeks of bickering, the Republicans running the House and Senate gave up and sent their members home, tossing the hot potato of redistricting—for the moment—back to the judiciary. This being Florida, the legislative whiff was not entirely a surprise: Despite one-party rule, Republican leaders in the Sunshine State have gotten along no better than Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid do in Washington. The Senate even sued the House earlier this year in a health-care dispute.

But the quandary they faced in drawing new districts was more tortuous. The Florida Supreme Court had invalidated the legislature’s original congressional map because the justices ruled it improperly favored Republicans, which is in violation of a constitutional amendment on redistricting adopted by voters in 2010. They ordered the GOP-led legislature to make it less favorable, or more fair. Your appendix needs to come out, the court told the lawmakers. Here’s the scalpel.

“Reapportionment is existential,” Jon Mills, the former Democratic speaker of the Florida House, told me. “It’s personal for everybody.” Mills, who has worked on redistricting issues as a lawyer and law professor at the University of Florida, recalled when it was Democrats who controlled the legislature and were forced to redraw districts in the early 1990s. “It doesn’t matter who’s in control. It’s difficult for anybody,” Mills said. “And for those in control, they’re going to get blamed.”

The House and Senate each came up with their own proposed map for Florida’s 27 congressional districts, but the chambers couldn’t agree on a compromise. Democrats are expected to gain one or two seats based on population changes from the census regardless of how Republicans draw the maps, meaning that at least one Republican congressional incumbent would lose his or her district. The map approved by the state Senate, for example, moved the line of the 15th House district so that its current GOP representative, Dennis Ross, now lives outside it by just a couple dozen feet. To stay in Congress, Ross would likely have to face another Republican, Representative Tom Rooney, in next year’s election.

But the House refused to budge on its own proposal, resulting in an impasse. The chambers can’t even decide who should draw the map at this point; the House wants the court to do it, while the Senate doesn’t want to give up the legislature’s power to determine congressional districts. The matter is now back before the Florida Supreme Court, which could decide to pick one of the two proposals, appoint an independent body to draw a map, or just do the thing itself. The court could also order the legislature back into another special session to meet its October deadline.

A major complicating factor in reapportioning Florida’s districts is race. For nearly a quarter century, the state has had three majority-minority districts and three African American members in its congressional delegation. Yet one of the districts invalidated by the court earlier this summer was the snake-shaped fifth district represented since 1993 by Corrine Brown. Under the latest Senate proposal, Brown’s district would be radically changed, almost like a lever pulled 90 degrees upward. Where it now begins in Jacksonville near the northeast corner of the state and drops south in a jagged line toward Orlando, the new map would make it shoot west from Jacksonville toward Tallahassee along the northern border with Georgia. (The Orlando Sentinel has a good illustration here.) Brown has accused the Senate of intentionally seeking to dilute the power of African Americans by moving the district so far north, and she’s already filed a federal suit to prevent the Florida courts from requiring a new congressional map that violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Florida Supreme Court had cited the fifth district and its serpentine shape as an egregious example of gerrymandering designed to protect incumbents, but Brown has fought that perception. “My name is not Corrine ‘Gerrymandering’ Brown,” she said in announcing the lawsuit earlier this month. In a separate statement, she said communities of similar interests should be kept together in redistricting.

Minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district “compactness,” while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments them across the state, not allowing them to elect a representative of their choice.

The complexities of Florida’s congressional map and the obvious difficulty its elected representatives are having in drawing it raise the question of why the legislature doesn’t mimic other states that have created independent commissions to handle reapportionment. The idea seems especially ripe in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June that upheld the work of a voter-created redistricting commission in Arizona over a challenge from the disgruntled legislature.

In Florida, the opposition from lawmakers has been fairly simple: They don’t want to give up control over something that has historically been their prerogative. Yet as 2016 draws closer with no solution in sight, that attitude might finally be changing. “There are two directly conflicting emotions here,” Mills said. “One is they don’t want to lose control. Two is, we don’t want to make somebody mad. I have to think in the back of some people’s minds is, ‘Ok, let them do it.’”