Florida’s Anti-Gerrymandering Measures Didn’t Work. Here’s How Both Parties Hope to Change Them.

Florida outlawed partisan gerrymandering but left redistricting to legislators. After years of litigation, that's likely to change.

Then-Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford (left) in 2014 with Florida state Rep. Richard Corcoran, who has been designated as speaker for the 2016-18 session. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Florida is the only state to outlaw partisan gerrymandering while leaving the redistricting process in the hands of partisan legislators rather than creating an independent commission. And after three years of litigation and four months of attempts to draw new legislative and congressional maps, local Republicans and Democrats have reached the conclusion that the state’s unique system of redistricting cannot go on.

Democratic legislators, inspired by a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirming the legality of independent redistricting commissions, hope to win Republican support for an independent commission to redraw district boundaries in Florida. And after months of redistricting chaos, some Republicans have hinted that they could get on board.

Republicans could also prepare for an effort in 2017 to change or undo an amendment to the state constitution, added in 2010, outlawing partisan gerrymandering. Every 20 years, Florida allows for a Constitutional Revision Commission, which can choose to put its own constitutional amendments on the next statewide ballot. The commission’s next session is in 2017, and most of its members are selected by the governor or legislators. A Republican-stacked Constitutional Revision Commission could put the gerrymandering ban back on the 2018 ballot to see if voters will strike it down.

Efforts to promote either path are in their early stages, but both sides are motivated to change the status quo. The extended redistricting battle has cost taxpayers $11 million, according to the Miami Herald.

“How many special sessions have we had? This is preposterous, in that this is just a matter of style, not substance,” said Democratic state Rep. Dwight Dudley, in an interview with National Journal. (The answer to his rhetorical question: four special sessions, as of October.)

Dudley has sponsored a bill that would create an independent commission modeled after California’s: The state auditor would pick up to 60 potential commissioners and then allow the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate to narrow the field down using vetoes. He also cosponsored an independent-commission bill that he now says doesn’t go far enough in keeping the commissioners independent of the legislature.

Even though Republicans control Florida’s House, Senate, and governorship, Dudley has high hopes that he can pass legislation creating an independent commission with bipartisan support. As lawmakers convened for the legislature’s second special session, the Herald reported, Republican state Sen. Tom Lee exclaimed in frustration, “Bring me a redistricting commission or something, for goodness sakes. Bring me something that works!”

More importantly, Republican state Rep. Richard Corcoran, who has been designated the speaker of the House for the 2016-18 session, told the Herald he is “completely open” to considering legislation creating an independent redistricting commission.

(Corcoran, Lee, and several other Republican legislators who have expressed at least hesitant support for a commission did not respond to requests for comment.)

Dudley acknowledged that Republicans could support some sort of redistricting Trojan horse—an ostensibly independent commission that actually gives legislators some sort of influence. In that case, it might be necessary to push for a ballot measure creating the commission.

“We don’t want a make-believe independent commission,” he said. “We want the real thing. We want as far independent as we can possibly design.”

An independent commission, however, is not the only way Florida can escape its current convoluted system. Republican consultant Rick Wilson said the 2017 Constitution Revision Commission is at least a “relevant” possible solution, although Republicans haven’t yet made plans to undo the 2010 Fair Districts Amendments.

“The other side will litigate the hell out of it, of course,” Wilson said. “But there is a way to get home on that to replace the slanted, D.C.-developed [state constitutional amendments] 5 and 6 with something more reflective of the will of the people in Florida.”

It’s not as simple as Republican legislators looking to preserve the party’s power rather than allowing for independent redistricting, Wilson said. It’s that the current ban on gerrymandering in Florida puts more power into the hands of unelected judges whom Republicans consider just as partisan. Three of the seven justices were appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and four were appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican who has since become a Democrat.

“They put their thumb on the partisan scale every single time we come to court,” Wilson said. “We’re going to have to look at this—how you go forward on it. I don’t think there’s a solidified strategy to deal with it now. But Republicans are mindful of dealing with it.”

Such an effort would face a perilous path, though. Florida voters backed the 2010 ballot measure outlawing gerrymandering; it’s far from certain they would reverse themselves if the Constitution Revision Commission sent the amendments back to the ballot in 2018. In 2010, Republicans attacked the two redistricting amendments on the ballot as being backed by out-of-state liberals, but voters supported them both, 63-37 percent.

“I’ve heard some rumblings, but let ‘em try,” Dudley said. “To me, you want to play with fire? You want to really outrage the public? Go ahead and play with, tinker with, try to dismantle the Fair Districts amendments. That, to me, is as kamikaze as ever could be.”