It appears that there is now clear evidence of what everyone who followed the once-in-a-decade state legislative redistricting process already knew: despite a new constitutional amendment forbidding legislators from basing boundaries on political calculations, that is exactly what they did. What’s more, the audaciously brazen manner in which they disregarded the will of their constituents demonstrates a complete disregard for the democratic process that must be meaningfully corrected.
Emails unearthed as part of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of voting groups challenging the redistricting of two districts, show legislative leaders and staff engaged in regular back-channel communications with both their party and the redistricting consultants brought on to study potential districts and draft maps. Using private emails, dropboxes and other platforms that would prevent such efforts from automatically entering the public record, these players had clear and unmistakable conversation about the political ramifications of the proposed maps.
The emails indicate that only a month after voters overwhelmingly amended the Florida Constitution and banned all coordination between political parties and lawmakers in the resdistricting process, a Republican Party of Florida consultant called a “brainstorming” meeting at the party headquarters in Tallahassee. In attendance, were the redistricting chiefs of both incoming legislative leaders (Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford), other legislative staff and counsel with roles in redistricting, and various RPOF big-wigs tied to reelection efforts.
Subsequent communications between legislators and those in attendance mention the favorability of various map proposals and even acknowledge the manufactured nature of their composition, with one email from a consultant to a lawmaker reporting that a proposed district would be very favorable for them, before acknowledging that “this map is little more than a hatchet job cutting all kinds of stuff up.”
Emails show the proposed maps being passed around among the various interests throughout the time period in which new districts were being decided. The lawsuit, which is currently before the Leon County Circuit Court, seeks to invalidate only two districts, though there's no telling if information uncovered in the case will spawn similar challenges in other districts. Attorneys from the Florida Legislature vehemently attempted to prevent the communications from being admitted, but were rejected by Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, prompting a reporter to file a public record request for them. 37 pages were introduced into the case, but are only a small portion of those were obtained by the plaintiffs.
There’s also no telling how many legislators and party honchos will ultimately be drawn into the scandal. The party and its top legislators are arguing that there is no proof that the communications were used in the actual map-drawing process. That may be true; however, the amendment bars the sort of coordination which did take place, in large part so there will not be the appearance of such commingling of interests, or the need to prove its influence – a nearly impossible exercise in most cases.
In truth, all one has to do is look at the ridiculous districts which were ultimately implemented. Any notion that they were designed to conform with the intent of the amendment – keeping natural and clearly-defined communities whole in their representation whenever possible and never drawing boundaries to confer a political advantage to any legislator or party – is ludicrous. Despite the force of a constitutional amendment, Fair Districts has been nothing more than an inconvenience for lawmakers intent on gerrymandering safe districts that will continue to allow them to support the special interests who sponsor them, without much to fear from disenchanted voters.
The flagrant nature of this particular scandal should, however, motivate the popular will to demand that Florida deliver on that which the voters have already won – fair districts. The only way in which that is likely to be achieved would be by taking the process out of the hands of politicians and political parties altogether and assigning it to a non-partisan board without skin in the game, in terms of elective results.
A diverse body of appointed or elected citizens who have a proven track record of operating above the political fray in positions that demand non-partisan cooperation is much more likely to yield something worthy of a democratic union than the current murky stew of conflicted interests who stand to profit handsomely in gaming the outcome. That's what the citizens deserve. However, this is Florida, so I won't hold my breath on any hopes that it's what they'll actually get.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.