A big setback for opponents of gerrymandering

Update: The judge who previously struck down Florida's congressional map has now approved the replacement maps and determined that they won't be used for the 2014 election. Instead, the previous maps, which he ruled unconstitutional, will be used this year, with the new maps taking over in 2016. The post below has been updated and re-posted to reflect the ruling.

In 2010, Florida's voters passed two constitutional amendments aimed at reducing partisan gerrymandering. Amendments 5 and 6 held that districts must not be drawn to "favor or disfavor" a party or incumbent or dilute the influence of minority voters.

Democrats and advocates for redistricting reform hailed the passage of the measures, arguing that they could kneecap the GOP's ability to continue its domination of a congressional map in what is otherwise a swing state.

They were wrong.

Republicans held 19 of the state's 25 districts following the 2010 election. With the amendments in effect and the state's map expanded to 27 districts in 2012, Democrats added four seats, for a total of 10 of the state's 27 districts. But that had as much or more to do with the GOP losing a few swing seats than with the new redistricting rules.

Indeed, the rules weren't really legally tested until this year, when a judge last month ruled that two of them needed to be redrawn because they were drawn for partisan purposes. The GOP-controlled state legislature subsequently approved a new map, with very minimal changes. According to numbers crunched by redistricting expert Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, only seven districts underwent changes in the redrawn map. Two heavily Democratic districts became about two points less Democratic, while two GOP-leaning seats became less than a point more Democratic.

The fact that the new map passed muster is, for now, a pretty major victory for the GOP in overcoming the so-called Fair Districts amendments -- and an equally large setback for redistricting reformers seeking to rein in partisan gerrymandering.

That's because the new map, practically speaking, isn't a whole lot different than the old, pre-reform map. To wit:

1) Under the 2010 map, there were 19 districts that leaned toward the GOP, according to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index (PVI). Under the new map, there are again 19 districts that lean toward the GOP. Even with the map expanding by two districts -- and both of those districts in effect going to Democrats -- that's still two-thirds of the state's congressional districts that favor the GOP.

Here's how that looks comparing the 2002-2010 map to the one the GOP crafted for 2012 (which, we'll re-state, barely changes under the state legislature's new map). Democratic-leaning districts are in blue and GOP-leaning districts are in red:

FLPVI

2) There are a very similar number of competitive districts. While the old map had one Democratic-leaning district that the GOP could win (the 22nd district), the new map has the same. While the old map had a handful of GOP-leaning districts that were potentially competitive, the new map also has a handful.

Again, very minimal differences.

3) The practical effect could be the same. While the GOP has been knocked down from holding 19 districts to holding 17, that 19 was actually a high-water mark. On average, they held 17 of the state's 25 seats for the decade between the 2002 map and the 2012 map -- or 68 percent.

This year, they are seriously pursuing two Democratic-held districts -- GOP-leaning districts held by Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) and Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) -- and defending one seat -- the GOP-leaning seat held by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). If the current map is approved and they win even two of those GOP-leaning seats, they'll be back to holding exactly two-thirds of the state's congressional seats -- nearly the same as most of last decade.

In other words, a strong GOP gerrymander remains a strong GOP gerrymander, at least right now. And the amendments, despite their intention, have had little practical effect. Incumbents were still protected, and the GOP's partisan advantage was still intact  -- even as those couldn't be the express purposes of the map. It's just very hard to prove someone's intent, which is why such amendments struggle to succeed.

Could the map have been drawn even more favorably for the GOP without the redistricting amendments? Maybe. But anyone who had any hopes that those amendments would take the politics out of redistricting or shift a handful of seats back to Democrats isn't seeing that happen.

Much has yet to play out, and reform advocates can still hope. The League of Women Voters, for instance, has said it will appeal the latest ruling.

If it doesn't succeed, though, and the current maps stands, redistricting reformers might want to go back to the drawing board.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · August 25