TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers returned to work Thursday under court-order to redraw their gerrymandered “mockery” of a congressional map in order to avert a chaotic delay in this fall’s elections.
And without delay, they released a plan that tweaks the contours of seven U.S. House districts spread throughout Central Florida.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have agreed to re-draw the two offending congressional districts held by U.S. Reps.Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. By early afternoon, the chambers had released a first-draft at new lines which made changes to a total of seven congressional districts from Jacksonville to Tampa Bay.
That has the potential to cause future legal challenges because thousands of absentee ballots have already been cast — potentially some of them in the wrong districts, depending on when the new map is put into effect.
The new map would shift the city of Sanford out of Brown’s seat, and remove an “appendage” of voters in Orange County out of Webster‘s. It would drop the black voting-age population of Brown’s seat from 50 percent down to 48.1 percent, and shave some GOP voters from Webster’s seat.
“The new version of CD 5 accomplishes the directive I gave to our staff,” Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a memo. “It removes Sanford from the district and is more visually and mathematically compact.”
“The new version of CD 5 better utilizes county and geographical boundaries like the St John’s River as a significant portion of the districts eastern border.”
The new proposal also shifts the district of Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, further into Orange County and takes away a swath of southern Osceola County — which is shunted into the District 17 seat held by Republican Tom Rooney.
Lewis ruled last month that the Legislature’s congressional map violated the 2010 anti-gerrymandering requirements thanks to evidence presented at trial that GOP political operatives had gamed the system to get more favorable maps submitted to the Legislature.
To avoid a repeat, lawmakers have locked down the process of re-drawing the seats, ordering staff to have no contact with congressional staff or political consultants. GOP leaders cautioned members in the House Thursday that any amendments to the map would need to come with information on everyone involved in drafting them.
“The consultants are allowed zero access,” House Redistricting Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
Although the second-stab at drawing congressional maps comes with extraordinary insulation from political influence, Corcoran reiterated that even the judge had conceded it may be impossible to keep partisan influences completely out of the process — especially once amendments start getting added to the plan.
“That’s why we’ve been very strict, saying any map that’s submitted we want to know who directed it,” Corcoran told reporters.
Lewis found particular fault with lawmakers’ decision to boost the black voting-age population in Brown’s Jacksonville-to-Orlando District 5 seat above 50 percent by removing those voters from a seat won by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. Last week, he gave lawmakers until Aug. 15 to re-draw the maps, and has set an Aug. 20 hearing on whether to push back elections to fill the impacted districts.
But GOP lawmakers have also refused to consider pushing back the Aug. 26 primary or Nov. 4 general elections.
“We’re here because we have a job to do. We’re here to get our congressional map right,” Weatherford said, admitting the legal challenge showed their first effort “had not been perfect.”
“The window of time is very narrow. We did not choose this time-frame, but I’m confident we can accomplish it fast.”
Lawmakers signaled last week they planned to make only minor tweaks to districts, although the groups that sued — the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other plaintiffs — have urged them to make larger-scale changes.
“The Legislature’s conduct in their last attempt to draw a constitutional congressional map raises many concerns that, frankly, the Legislature itself ought to find troubling,” the coalition of plaintiffs said in a statement.
“While Floridians were told almost daily how fully compliant the process was, it is clear that there was a methodical attempt to entirely frustrate Florida’s Constitution by legislative leaders and their agents.”
Corcoran said any plan “that does it better than we do, we’ll be happy to look at that.”