By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

Dueling redistricting meetings Thursday drew a sharp contrast as legislative staff offered contradictory legal guidance to the Florida House and Senate redistricting committees.

The Florida Senate committee, which sent its congressional and Senate plans to the floor Thursday in bipartisan votes, heard that Congressional District 10 in Orlando is a protected Black coalition district.

The Florida House redistricting committee staff, just hours before, said the district has no such protections.

If the district is protected, that would mean legislators must ensure Black voters retain the ability to elect the candidate of their choice or risk violating the law. If the district is not protected, making voters’ race a predominant factor in drawing the district might violate the law.

It’s not clear why the two chambers reached contradictory conclusions.

According to their contract databases, the Florida House hired three law firms for redistricting, while the Florida Senate retained two.

“There is no one piece of data that makes it protected,” House Redistricting chairman Tom Leek said during the meeting when asked why the Orlando-area district wasn’t protected.

Two hours later, Jay Ferrin, the Senate’s redistricting staff director, said explicitly that the district was “an effective minority district protected from diminishment under Tier One [of the Florida Constitution’s redistricting standards]. A functional analysis confirms it does not deny or abridge the opportunity for African-Americans to participate in the political process. It does not diminish their ability to participate in the political process.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson’s spokeswoman Katie Betta said that he has not yet reviewed the maps or analysis that House staff produced. “Likewise, Senate staff have been working independently, at the direction of the Senate committee, and have not been collaborating with the House on map drawing and analysis,” she said in an email. “Moving forward in the Senate, the two maps (contained in bills SJR 100 and SB 102) will be taken up on the Senate floor next week. We would then begin the process of working with the House to ultimately pass identical bills. As with other legislation, the specific timeline and process for reconciling any differences between House and Senate bills would be determined once both Chambers have passed their respective legislation.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Leek, Senate Reapportionment Committee chairman Ray Rodrigues, Ferrin and House redistricting staff director Leda Kelly all have not yet returned requests for comment.

Florida House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach) and staff director Leda Kelly at Thursday’s committee meeting. [The Florida Channel]

“How did they come to different conclusions about something like this?” asked House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, a Broward County Democrat. “… It’s not enough to ask us to trust their maps. They need to show their work. We, and the people of Florida, deserve to see the process.”

The shocking revelation came when Rep. Joe Geller, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County, asked Kelly directly if she considered the Orlando area district protected. Leek told Geller to talk to Kelly one-on-one to get more information.

Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments protect voters from racial and language minority groups from having their ability to elect candidates of their choice diminished.

The current Congressional District 10, which is represented by Orlando Democrat U.S. Rep. Val Demings, saw Black voters make up about 49 percent of the Democratic primaries from 2014 to 2020. Under one of the two House proposals, that falls to 39 percent in what would now be called Congressional District Seven. Under the Senate plan, the share drops to 48 percent.

As The Tributary previously reported, neither the Florida House nor the Senate have published the sort of precinct-level racial voting analyses that courts often demand. Instead, the chambers have relied on broader district-level statistics.

The League of Women Voters President Cecile Scoon demanded the Legislature conduct and publish the more detailed analyses, and UF professors Daniel Smith and Michael McDonald have criticized the Legislature for not fulfilling public records requests for the underlying data that would make such analyses possible.

The Miami Herald reported that the Senate’s legal team has retained a UCLA professor who is an expert in racial voting analyses.

If the two chambers can’t agree on the Orlando district’s protections, it raises questions about whether they are also using different standards to draw their own chambers’ maps. The two chambers have entrusted their respective counterparts to draw their own district maps, which means the Senate has only drawn congressional and Senate maps, while the House has only drawn congressional and House maps.

If senators believe the House staff have a misunderstanding of the law, the senators could propose their own Florida House maps.

Following The Tributary’s reporting about the issue, Florida House Democrats also questioned why the redistricting committee wasn’t accounting for the Haitian Creole population.

Kelly explained that data about the Haitian Creole population isn’t included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s redistricting file, but there is some data in a sample survey the government conducts, which has higher error rates. A decade ago, the Legislature used the American Community Survey’s Haitian estimates.

The House and Senate are also far apart in terms of timelines. The Senate plans to vote on the redistricting proposals next week, while the House hasn’t even begun amending its initial proposals.

The Senate also approved a new system of renumbering Senate districts. The Senate usually faces staggered elections with half the seats up in a given election year. This year, every Senate seat will have an election, but odd-numbered seats will hold new elections in two years and then hold re-elections with the presidential cycle, while even-numbered seats will hold elections during the midterms.

Due to the odd quirk where odd-numbered senators will have a two-year term, that allows some senators to avoid normal term limits and serve as many as 10 years in that seat.

In the Jacksonville area, this will affect whoever wins the open race for the current Senate District 6 (soon to be 5). State Rep. Tracie Davis and City Councilman Reggie Gaffney are running in the Democratic primary for that seat.

The Senate and House had more consensus in other areas of guidance. Both the Senate and the House cited past court cases detailed in The Tributary’s past reporting where judges threw out districts drawn to be Black-majority when a lower percentage was sufficient to allow Black voters to elect candidates of their choice.

Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, objected to making one Broward County Senate district 46 percent Black instead of being majority Black.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the Republican leading the Senate’s redistricting committee, pointed to the court cases that threw out former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s Jacksonville-to-Orlando gerrymandered seat. In those cases, judges said it wasn’t necessary to make that district Black-majority since Black voters could still elect their candidate of choice with a lower percentage.

Rodrigues said that using the lower percentage in the previous Senate District 33 made the district comply with more of the secondary criteria in the Fair Districts Amendments.

While staff told Bracy that it would have no impact on the surrounding districts, that’s not true. Under Rodrigues’ approved drawing, the previous Senate Districts 32 and 34 see a significantly higher share of Black voters in their Democratic primaries, which would likely give Black voters more influence over nominations.

Bracy told The Tributary he thought Rodrigues’ explanation about Senate District 33 was reasonable, but he still would’ve preferred the district be drawn with a Black majority.

“I think the entire senate wants to avoid a legal challenge and avoid running afoul of the constitution,” he said, “… so I think everyone in the Senate is comfortable with the product that has come out with minor tweaks here and there.

“I think we’re following the law.”

Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, also complained that Black districts were denser and poorer than white districts, and she filed a failed amendment to make her district geographically larger.

She also said Black voters are “disenfranchised” if they aren’t placed in districts that can elect Black voters’ preferred candidates. But courts have actually ruled that packing extra Black voters into districts that can already elect the preferred candidates of Black voters constitutes illegal racial gerrymandering.

Gibson and St. Petersburg Democrat Sen. Darryl Rouson were the lone votes against the Senate’s congressional plan, though they voted for the Senate plan. Bracy was the sole vote against the Senate district plan, though he voted for the congressional plan.

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, voted for both plans, and all Republicans voted for both plans.

State law prohibits lawmakers from favoring or disfavoring political parties or incumbents.

In the eight major statewide elections since 2016, Democrats would’ve won at least once in 15 of the 28 congressional districts and 20 of the 40 Senate districts.

Joe Biden would’ve won 12 of the state’s 28 congressional districts in 2020, and Andrew Gillum would’ve won 14 of the districts in 2018.

Biden would’ve won 16 of the 40 senate districts, with a 17th district almost exactly tied. Gillum would’ve won 18.

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

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On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee will host public hearings to gather community input about its local redistricting plan. Those meetings are expected to take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27 at Ed White High, on Feb. 3 at Atlantic Coast High, on Feb. 10 at First Coast High and on Feb. 17 at Raines High.

The Tributary, in partnership with the local civic organizations, will host a discussion of local redistricting next Thursday at noon via Zoom. Follow our Facebook and Twitter for forthcoming registration details.

The Florida Senate is expected to vote on its congressional and Senate plans next week.

You can find past meetings on The Florida Channel.

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Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville...