Drawing Congressional District Maps in Florida: Thou Shalt Not . . .

Drawing Congressional District Maps in Florida: Thou Shalt Not . . .

Given the momentous news made by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday when it declared that eight of Florida’s congressional districts had been drawn in violation of the state constitution, one might have expected a fair amount of “buzz” on this Monday morning from the Legislature and its leaders.

Apparently not. And probably with good reason.

With the court-imposed requirement of a new adopted map (which is likely to involve adjusting the boundaries of as many as 14 districts) in 100 days (a clock already ticking down), there is much work to do, and not much time that can be spent on photo ops or sound bites.

Besides which, as a purely practical matter, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision is the literal end of the road for this bit of litigation. What is left to say? It’s just time to move on and get the job done.

How to get the job done in such a way that majority support in both chambers can be secured, the court’s acceptance can be assured or at least deemed likely, and everyone can get back to other business by November . . . ah, there’s the rub.

Drawing legislative districts is inherently political. No scientific formula can produce the “correct” district map. There literally are an infinite range of possibilities from which to choose, involving tiny variations and massive alterations, each with implications for the careers of individual politicians, the major political parties and various interests.

Most importantly, the outcome of the districting process profoundly affects the nature and quality of the representation received by the communities and constituencies of Florida.

So what should the standards be?

Fortunately, we, the voters of Florida, decided that question in 2010. And while the standards we articulated in the Fair District amendment for congressional districting are admittedly open to interpretation (of necessity), they are not devoid of content.

We set three standards as, together, being of the first priority. One is stated positively, the other two negatively:

  • The districts shall be comprised of contiguous territory (meaning all of the land in a particular district must be adjacent to other land in that particular district);
  • The districts shall not be drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent”;
  • The districts shall not be drawn “with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

The first sets a seemingly simple geographic standard. A district can’t be comprised, for example, of a few square miles from Dade County and a few more from Orange without including land between the two. In practice, however, this standard has been interpreted very creatively, allowing areas that are contiguous only if one includes highway right of way and bridges over large bodies of water as meeting the intent of “contiguous.” But it’s something of a standard, one defined by the map.

The next two standards differ from each other in subject, of course (partisan or personal advantage or disadvantage; participation and representation of minorities), but they also differ more subtly. Two words are included in the standard regarding minorities that are not included in the standard regarding partisan interests. Both standards prohibit districting with the intent of achieving partisan, personal or ethnic disadvantage. But the standard regarding minorities also prohibits such results, whether or not intended.

I highlight this last distinction to make a point the drafters clearly understood. We all understand the partisan and personal implications of the way district maps are drawn. It would be impossible, literally, to draw a map that did not have the result of advantaging some individuals and partisan interests in some areas and disadvantaging others.

A fair districting process isn’t one without partisan or personal effect. It is one in which those partisan and personal consequences are shoved to the side as much as is humanly possible, in which other standards guide the drawing of maps, and the political chips fall where they may.

Some have condemned these amendments as foolishness. One could argue that contiguity and respect for minority participation and representation simply doesn’t provide enough guidance. Inevitably, partisan considerations must and will enter the process.

But the Fair District amendments provided more guidance, a second tier of standards that actually provide meaningful, if not definitive, substance guidance for drawing the maps. It is to those standards we turn next . . .

One Response to Drawing Congressional District Maps in Florida: Thou Shalt Not . . .