Drawing Congressional District Maps in Florida: Thou Shalt Respect Common Sense and Community

Drawing Congressional District Maps in Florida: Thou Shalt Respect Common Sense and Community

Earlier this week, I acknowledged what any reasonable observer of the legislative redistricting process would have to acknowledge: the process is inherently political. What is more, I noted that it would be impossible to draw a congressional district map (or any other legislative district map) without affecting the political fortunes of political parties and individual politicians.

This is why the Fair District amendments passed by the voters of Florida in 2010 spoke of “intent” when they prohibited partisan and personal gerrymandering. They insist that the district maps not be drawn with the intent to benefit one party or candidate over another; that some will benefit, and some will be hurt, is unavoidable.

I also acknowledged that there simply isn’t a mathematical formula that can be applied that necessarily produces the “right” map. There are an infinite range of possibilities when drawing legislative district maps, beginning with something as simple as, where do you start? The Keys? Nassau County? Escambia? Or maybe Polk or Marion, central counties, and then one builds out in concentric circles? Or . . .

Given the infinite (and mind-numbing) possibilities to be considered and choices to be made, how are the maps to be drawn?

The Fair Districts amendments didn’t attempt to provide a definitive formula, recognizing the impossibility of such a feat. They established overarching requirements that mostly took the form of prohibitions, discussed in an earlier blog. But they also identified affirmative standards to guide the process, standards which both make considerable sense and offer more than a little guidance to the process.

One of those standards, contiguity, was discussed earlier. Taken together with what I’ll call a second-tier geographic standard, compactness, the guidance seems clear. We, the voters of Florida, want our districts to be “chunks,” not spaghetti strands or fiber optic networks with nodes.

Not to oversimplify (well . . . maybe that’s exactly what I’m doing), one might imagine a redistricting process that began, say, in Escambia County and took in the whole north/south dimension of the Panhandle as it moved east until it had the appropriate proportion of the state’s population. Draw the district line. Start a new district, again taking in the whole north/south dimension, moving east until, once again, the requisite population is captured therein. Once the map clears the Panhandle, perhaps the districts remain roughly the same dimension north to south that they were coming across the Panhandle, all the way to Nassau and Duval counties. Then start another row, either from the east coast or the west. And so on.

Of course, this won’t work. We can’t draw a district map this way in 10 or 15 minutes and be done. The numbers won’t add up in certain places. And, to avoid making spaghetti, one might want to ensure that districts were a minimum number of miles across east to west, as well as north to south. But as a first cut . . . why not? And it would honor the standards of contiguity and compactness elegantly.

But it also might lead to districts that cut across geographic boundaries that tend to be associated with common interests or a sense of community. Should citizens on both sides of the Intracoastal (or, to use a clearly controversial example, Tampa Bay) be lumped together into a single district, or should some distinction be made based on the physical reality of the body of water and the way it divides or unites communities?

The Fair Districts amendments offer affirmative guidance on these points as well. They require that the boundaries of districts, “where feasible, [shall] utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”

These standards suggest that the building blocks of the district map might be counties, for example, and then cities within counties. As much as possible, a county could be completely contained within a single congressional district. When not possible, the county could be divided along the lines of the municipalities within that county. Perhaps, when municipalities must be divided, the guiding principle might be recognized neighborhoods or sections of the city (with similar approaches to splitting counties with few incorporated cities, honoring the way county residents conceive of their county).

The result would be a map that made sense when one looked at it at the macro level. When one dug down into the details, it still would make sense, as existing political jurisdictional boundaries and recognized communities were respected by the lines drawn.

The experience, common when examining the current congressional district map, that there must be a hidden reason for the bizarre shapes, cutouts and inclusions, would rarely, if ever, be our response to such a map.

Of course, at the margins, there still will be plenty of room to play around with individual city blocks, or even individual homes. And there will be those who try to anticipate how the map will play out in their area based on the geographic starting point and advocate passionately for the Panhandle start, or Nassau County, or Miami-Dade, or Monroe . . . or any other place.

And in those struggles over such esoteric matters as where to start, political and personal considerations undoubtedly will be operating in the background.

But our district maps wouldn’t be incomprehensible. They wouldn’t be produced simply to advantage one party over another, or particular candidates over others.

And they would facilitate the representation of the communities in our state by people who actually might know them . . . because they live there, and not at the other end of the spaghetti noodle.