Friday, October 22, 2021

Democrats, voting groups question access during Florida political redistricting process In the Sunshine State, the process is controlled by Republicans. (USA Today)

As a declared Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representtives, District 17, I wonder why Dull Republicans in Tallahassee suppose that "We, The People," should be frozen out of redistricting decisionmaking?    

We have a right to field hearings, as occurred ten years ago.

That is the standard of care.

Perhaps we should call it "Talla-hassle," or "Talla-hustle," instead of Tallahassee, because too many of the Dull Republican legislators, lobbyists and billionaires who boss and bully our State of Florida are all about the "hustle" and the "hassle," not on working for "We, The People."

What arrogance. 

 From USA Today: 

Democrats, voting groups question access during Florida political redistricting process

In the Sunshine State, the process is controlled by Republicans

Jeffrey Schweers

As the Florida Legislature begins its second week of hearings on state and congressional redistricting, voting rights advocates want to make sure that the public has every opportunity to be heard.

“Our main concern right now is that you’d only be able to speak to representatives by driving all the way to Tallahassee,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. “But in these days of Zoom meetings, why can’t you do that?”

One thing seems certain: The Republican-controlled Legislature probably won’t be taking the redistricting show on the road, with maps and staff going from city to city to explain the process and take public input.

Related coverage and opinion:

Rep. Tom Leek

“We are obviously substantially impacted by the delay in getting the data," House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told members of his committee. "Although a decision hasn't been made, it will be difficult to do a road show like you've seen in past."

A vow of transparency

Reapportionment is a once-every-decade exercise in political pie-carving, using the latest census data to redraw electoral boundaries in a way that everyone gets an equal bite, regardless of race, creed or political persuasion. 

And all eyes are on Tallahassee after the disaster of Florida’s last attempt at redrawing those boundaries — lawsuits and a court decision that the process was unconstitutional and tainted by partisanship of the controlling GOP. 

The League was part of the Fair Districts Coalition that successfully sued the Legislature over the redrawn legislative and congressional boundaries in 2012, claiming lawmakers worked with political operatives to gerrymander the redistricting process to favor one party.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed, and required the Legislature to redraw state senate and congressional boundaries according to the constitutionalamendments and case law.

This time around, legislative leaders overseeing the redistricting committees vowed during their first round of committee meetings in September to be transparent and follow the rules set in place by the state’s highest court. 

Jonathan Webber

Two of those committee hearings were held simultaneously, something Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters pointed out during one committee hearing.

"People shouldn't have to pick and choose between congressional and legislative redistricting subcommittees," Webber said.

The Fair Districts amendments and court decisions boil down to two prime directives:

  • Don’t favor any political party of incumbents when drawing new lines.
  • Don’t deny minorities by race or language the equal opportunity to participate in the political process or diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.te Account

The Legislature's four redistricting chairs recited more or less the same commitment to conduct the process in a manner consistent with the case law developed over the last decade, to be beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.

Some even admitted that there were bad actors looking to sully the process last time around, and vowed not to let that occur this time.

“Hard lessons were learned through the previous process ... the Florida Supreme Court ruling fundamentally changed the way we draw districts,” said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, chair of the his chamber's Reapportionment Committee.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues (file photo)

Each chair also outlined a rigorous list of policies and procedures about retaining records, including contact with the public, guaranteeing no anonymous maps or comments will be submitted by requiring people to submit signed forms that also include listing who they received money, meals and lodging from.

“We are taking steps to prevent the types of shadow processes that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said. “We will protect against astroturfing that occurred in the past where both parties wrote scripts and plans to create a false impression of widespread grassroots movement.”

Scoon asked Rodrigues and other members of the Senate Reapportionment Committee on Sept. 20 to back that commitment up by signing the Fair Districts pledge on its website. 

When Scoon said the language of the oath paraphrases the constitution but doesn’t use the exact language, Rodrigues said he couldn’t sign the oath because it might be in conflict with the constitution. So far, only 10% of legislators involved in redistricting have signed the pledge, a coalition representative said. 

Sen. Loranne Ausley stands at her desk during a Senate session Thursday, March 18, 2021.

“I don't agree with him on everything politically, but I know him to be a fair and honest man,” Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee said. “The legislative leaders took ownership of what happened 10 years ago.”

Monday, the Fair Districts Coalition sent a letter to members of the House and Senate redistricting committees expressing concern that while members were urged to retain all records, Senate rules exempt redistricting communications and draft maps from public records as work product. The group asked that redistricting records exemption be repealed. 

"In the last redistricting cycle the legislature had to admit in court that they had destroyed all internal redistricting communications," the letter said. "Again, the solution here is not to just urge the maintenance of records but to repeal the statute and rules that exempt them from public records laws."

The group also raised concerns that staff, committee members and senators are free to get outside help without disclosure requirements, while House members and the public must disclose who they get help from.

"Transparency is needed across the board. Why are staff members, committee members and Senators exempted from this requirement? Shouldn’t the rules for all participants be the same?"

A spokesperson for Senate President Wilton Simpson said it was inaccurate that staff, committee members and senators could get outside help without disclosing it.

"There is absolutely no exemption for Senators or Senate staff," said Katie Betta, deputy chief of staff for communications. "Everyone must disclose who, if anyone, assisted with the drawing of the maps. Senators and staff have the added measure of having to answer these questions when presenting maps during live, televised, public hearings."

Ensuring public access

The biggest concern right now is making sure the public gets to say their piece, both Democratic members and voting rights advocates have told the Republican leaders.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, asked if there would be any other opportunities for participation besides comment, testimony and submission of maps.

“Your examples are what has been agreed upon between the Senate and House,” Rodrigues said. “All meetings will be publicly noted and people will have the opportunity to comment, and can reach out to any of us to champion their views.”

Rodrigues also said that the road shows of the past were driven by a court ruling that required legislatures to seek input from "communities of interest," a standard which no longer applies post-Fair Districts rulings.

"So given that the key piece of information that we received from those road shows is no longer applicable to the drawing of the districts, my personal position is I’m not sure we should expend the time to do that," Rodrigues said. "But it’s not my say. It’s something that’s being negotiated above me. We’ll see what comes out of it.”

Scoon and other Fair District members have asked the Legislature to stream meetings, and allow public input via the Internet, similar to a proposal that Democratic Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura made during a committee hearing.

State Rep. Joe Geller

“Old style road shows are so pre-COVID,” Geller said. “The notion that staff or members of committee need to travel anywhere to hear the public is not the case anymore if we can have the vision to catch up to technology as the vice chair is always urging us to do.”

Conversely, he said that the idea that members of the public “have to travel to Tallahassee to stand at the Civic Center to be piped into us to speak to members is equally ridiculous.”

He recommended a virtual roadshow where Zoom meetings could be set up around the state so people could participate without traveling to Tallahassee.

Leek was more enthusiastic about the new interactive website the Legislature has set up, which will allow people at home to see comments and maps, and message their legislators.

“Unlike any other committee, the public will have direct access to you out of their homes through this website,” Leek said.

Senate President Wilton Simpson speaks to a full Capitol rotunda after sine die, the last day of the 2021 Florida legislative session Friday, April 30, 2021.

Both the Senate and House are meeting this week to walk committee members through the state's redistricting website, and how the public can submit maps, offer feedback on submitted maps, or offer general comments.

“The way people communicate with everyone, including their legislators, has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and our new joint website reflects those great technological advancements," said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

"Our staff have been working tirelessly to integrate recently received census data with the new map-drawing application so legislators and the public can appropriately and actively participate in this once-in-a-decade process in a tangible and meaningful way.”

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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