Democrats push independent commission amid redistricting mess

Gary Rohrer | Orlando Sentinel | 08/30/2015

TALLAHASSEE — With the Legislature having trouble redrawing new political districts, the job should be given to an independent commission as other states have done, Democrats argue.

But Republicans, in charge of the Legislature and whose redistricting efforts have resulted in a legal quagmire, aren't ready to give up the job.

Although such commissions have been used in other states for years, only within the past two redistricting cycles have states pushed for more independence for them. But impartiality can be hard to achieve.

"The catch is how you define independent," said Tim Storey, state legislative elections expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Some of these commissions are just as partisan as the Legislature."

In Florida, House Democrats are backing a bill by Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, that would create a commission to submit redistricting plans for legislative and congressional districts to the Legislature starting with the 2020 census.

But Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, leader of Senate redistricting efforts, doesn't think the Legislature should give up its redistricting powers.

"I don't think we're at a point where just because we couldn't resolve the congressional maps in two weeks under the most unique circumstances I've ever encountered [that] we don't have the ability to do so ever again," Galvano said.

During a special session earlier this month, Galvano walked away from talks with his House counterpart, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, and the Legislature ended the session without adopting new maps. Although Galvano has offered a compromise redistricting plan, Oliva is skeptical there's enough time to return and pass it before the courts act.

The House has recommended the courts draw the maps, while pushing the map drafted by legislative staffers and passed by the House as a solution. A lower-court judge last week asked the Florida Supreme Court for guidance in the case since the Legislature didn't pass new maps as instructed by the court.

The session was called after the Supreme Court ruled in July that the Legislature violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution by allowing GOP operatives to submit district maps under false pretenses that aided the Republican Party.

Democratic-leaning groups pushed the amendments, frustrated by supermajorities enjoyed by Republicans in the Legislature and a congressional delegation that was 19-6 in favor of Republicans before 2012. That was the case, despite Democrats having a slight edge over Republicans in statewide registered voters.

Amid the legal limbo, the tab for the Legislature's legal services so far in the latest redistricting process is about $11 million.

Already, there are 13 states with redistricting commissions, and Iowa leaves it to legislative staffers to draw new maps. Some are allowed to draw both congressional and legislative districts, some just congressional maps. The size of the commissions ranges from three in Arkansas to 14 in California. torey said California and Arizona are the best models for keeping partisanship out of the process, but even that is "in the eye of the beholder," he said.

California's districts were upheld by the courts, but after a legal battle, and Arizona's legal tussle over its districts resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer.

Florida's justices leaned on that ruling in issuing their own Fair Districts opinion.

Despite the moves in other states, Jenne said he didn't look to them in drafting his bill.

The bill calls for a commission of nine members — three Republicans, three Democrats and three from minor parties or no party affiliation, appointed by legislative leaders and the governor — to be housed in Orange County. The members must have lived in Florida for at least five years and been registered with the same party for five years.

The commission would only be able to recommend new districts to lawmakers. Jenne drafted it that way to avoid having to amend the state constitution, which gives the power to redraw districts solely to the Legislature.

Jenne admits he'll struggle to get support from Republicans but noted Florida's demographic trend toward more Hispanic and nonwhite ethnic groups that lean Democratic means an independent redistricting committee could prevent Democrats from drawing districts in their favor.

"I've had to operate and live in a political system where the minority party has been mistreated, and it isn't good," Jenne said.


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