TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s 5th Congressional District begins — for now — in the northern sprawl of Jacksonville near a Kangaroo Express gas station. Then it moves southward, hugging parts of the St. Johns River, until it emerges on the other side of the city on a stretch of Route 17 known as Park Road, and that is where it starts to get weird. ¶ “Mike, are we in the 5th District right now?” the clerk at Fleming Island Choice Meats called to her friend as he entered the shop on a recent weekday afternoon. ¶ Mike shrugged and shook his head. “I really don’t know.” ¶ “What do you suppose about this sign then?” ¶ The clerk reached behind a display stand for a political campaign poster that a lady had dropped off. The lady wanted the clerk to put it in the shop window, but only the window facing one side of the street, because the other side belonged to a different district, or at least that’s what the clerk thought she was saying, but honestly the whole set of instructions was pretty confusing.
The 5th District was, near this geographical spot, a sliver. Across the road was the 3rd District. Across the river, the 4th. District 5 was barely the width of the highway.
It was regularly cited as one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, formed when Florida picked up two congressional seats after the 2010 Census, and meandering nearly 200 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando. The 700,000 people who lived in it were fine. The way they had been clumped together was the problem. The district’s mathematical scores, which wonky map people used to measure how compactly shaped it was, were atrocious.
Here is what happens if you try to drive down the 5th District, from end to end: Eventually you run out of road and end up in a swamp.
So a judge had decided the 5th needed to be fixed. Fast.
In response to a lawsuit filed by Florida’s League of Women Voters, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis noticed the shoestring highway. He noticed a bunch of other things, too: the arm-like appendage sticking out into the city of Sanford down by the district’s southern border. The “bizarre” way the 5th traipsed down the state, urban areas connected by scraggly rural tentacles.
The shape of the 5th District violated a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution, Lewis ruled on Aug. 1, which decreed that districts should be compact, and that politicians shouldn’t be allowed to draw boundaries to benefit their parties.
Lewis noted one more thing: To the average individual, redistricting is super boring.
It doesn’t address divisive social or moral issues, he wrote. It doesn’t arouse “intense passions.”
What redistricting did do, Lewis said, was embody the “very foundation of representative democracy.”
The judge ordered the state legislature to redraw the borders of both the 5th District and the neighboring 10th. He gave them a deadline of Aug. 15, 11 days before primary elections.
And so the members of the legislature, which had recessed for the summer, hiked back to Tallahassee:
“We’re here because we have a job to do,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, as he gravely gaveled a roomful of vacation-tanned representatives to order on Aug. 7. “We’re here because we need to get our congressional map right.”
The United States is an oddly shaped puzzle where fiddling with one district means fiddling with another, and sometimes two purposes become fundamentally at odds: Should a district’s boundaries be neat geographical boxes? Or should they represent the complicated cultural ties of the people living within it?
The entire point of districts was to make sure citizens of the United States would have proportional representation, as promised to them by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution. This, the framers felt, would prevent the tyranny of political parties, which George Washington described as “potent engines” full of “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men.” (Today, representation is set at 435 districts around the country, recalibrated after every census as state populations rise and fall.)
Districting worked as intended for a little while. But what began as a goal to keep geographical powers in check soon evolved into cunning, ambitious and unprincipled cartography. Ruling political parties learned how to corral certain demographics into the districts that would give the politicians an electoral leg up. Gerrymandering.
That’s what Judge Lewis thought had happened in Florida.
He wrote that the Republican-majority Florida legislature had drawn their map in a suspicious manner, allowing special map access to political consultants. They had hidden this map wizardry from the public. They had deleted e-mails relating to this plotting, though at one point during the trial, the Senate president stated he wasn’t even sure if he knew how to delete e-mails.
Most noteworthy: While the map did assure that the 5th District would keep its African American voting clout — as required under the federal Voting Rights Act — Lewis found that it seemed designed to also ensure the safety of several surrounding Republican districts. In a state with nearly a half-million more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, Republicans controlled 17 out of the state’s 27 districts and had created borders to keep it that way.
Here is what happened the first time the legislature tried to deal with this map: They ran into a swamp.
On the opening day of the Florida legislature’s special session, Raoul Cantero, a former state Supreme Court justice and the Senate’s special lawyer on the case, went to a lectern to address the redistricting committees. He explained there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the problematic map: It had been drawn as an effort to redress historical wrongs.
When what is currently the 5th District was formed in 1992, the state hadn’t elected an African American representative since Reconstruction.
The skinny, lumpy new district connected several minority populations, providing them a better chance to elect one of their own. It connected the urban black precincts of Jacksonville, Gainesville and Orlando by its meander through the land of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, orange groves and alligators, wealthy whites running things and poor rural blacks with no power. The district was 52.7 percent African American, and for two decades now, its representative had been Corrine Brown, a Democrat from Jacksonville.
She, in a strange-bedfellows situation, wanted the same thing the Republicans had wanted: for her district to stay as it was. She’d sent out a public statement protesting Lewis’s decision, calling it “seriously flawed,” and writing, “It completely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.”
“There are times when I feel like I’m at a real disadvantage not being a lawyer,” one senator, Tom Lee, said to Cantero. “I want to make sure I understand a couple simple principles: At the 30,000-foot level — there’s a body of law that encourages, and even obligates us, to consider voting discrimination . . .
“And that is why we don’t conform to the more common geometric shapes we may know as people.”
Yes, Cantero said. That was correct.
“This here is our new transportation facility.” Evelyn Foxx, the president of Gainesville’s branch of the NAACP, pointed to a half-finished construction site in the eastern part of her city. Soon it would hold all of the city’s buses, repair shops and administrative offices. “It’s going to be named after Corrine Brown,” Foxx explained, because the congresswoman helped them get the $38 million in funding.
Back in the state capitol building in Tallahassee, there was the map that the legislators were creating, with their software and color coding and souped-up PowerPoints. And here in this part of Gainesville, and the other communities under Brown’s purview, there was the land that the people of the 5th District actually lived on.
Foxx wants it to stay that way.
“Down there are the tent cities,” Foxx said, continuing her tour of Brown’s district. East Gainesville had a homeless problem, Foxx admitted, and it desperately needed more economic development. But she felt sure that the way to get it was to stay a part of the 5th District, and under Brown’s representation.
The League of Women Voters had argued that the current map disenfranchised minorities, packing them all into one district and wrecking their chances for greater representation in others. They argued that a less gerrymandered district — a term first created in 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew himself an advantageous salamander-shaped district — would also be a more fair one.
“It does look weird,” Foxx admitted. She knew the map of the 5th didn’t look like it made any sense. She knew gerrymandering was bad. But what were their options? Sure, a new map might later result in more African American representation, as the League suggested, but what if it didn’t?
Foxx, a retired insurance saleswoman, had voted in every election since she was 18. Her mother had always voted, despite having only a ninth-grade education. Voting represented hope, and hope, Foxx said, was sometimes the only thing the African American community had.
“We need to keep what we have until a different way is presented,” Foxx said. “We just hope things will change. But until that day comes, we have to preserve what we have.”
Fifty miles away from Gainesville in the small town of Palatka, Sam Deputy — who owned the print shop, volunteered with the historical society and knew everybody — was also wondering about the 5th District’s preservation.
Corrine Brown didn’t have an office there. Palatka was a tentacle. It was part of the stretch that connected Jacksonville to Gainesville, and then to the Orlando suburbs — highways dotted with country markets and boiled peanut stands.
“Maybe I should invite her to grand-marshal the Christmas parade,” Deputy mused over breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe in downtown Palatka. He organized this parade every year. He made sure someone was around to play the Bardin Booger, which was the local version of Bigfoot. And he made sure that the local tiny-tot dance studios all got a rotation at the front of the parade, which was a lesson he had learned the hard way.
The thing about Putnam County was that it was pretty rural. “We’re the land time forgot,” Deputy said affectionately — the oldest county on the St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in America that flows upstream.
Deputy loved Palatka. It was the community that supported him when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was a community that didn’t identify much with Jacksonville or Gainesville; when people here wanted a city experience, they went 30 miles to St. Augustine, unless they took their nightlife “a little strange,” in which Jacksonville was okay.
He heard they were drawing a new map in Tallahassee. “How do you pull such a weirdly shaped district together? When I think of what the people of Orlando need and what the people of Salt Springs need, it’s so different down there. I think it would take . . . ” He shook his head. He didn’t even know.
Jason Poreda, a young legislative analyst, had been tasked to present what it would take.
On the first day of the special session, the politicians discussed abstract things like Reock scores, which measure how well a district could fit in a circle, and Convex Hull scores, which would indicate how a rubber band could stretch around a district.
On the second day, Poreda rose to explain the new proposed map to the House committee in a presentation that involved many slides of many parts of the map.
“I’m going to take us step by step,” he said, turning on a PowerPoint presentation. The proposed map had a name: H000C9057. The 5th District ran right down the middle, in hot pink.
“The map stays the same in 20 districts,” he began.
The redistricting committees had decided on a map of tweaks. A map that shifted people from one district to another by careful scalpel, again wielded in private, by the two committee heads, staffers and their outside lawyers.
“The serpentine nature of the district was somewhat mitigated,”Poreda said. The new map also addressed the objectionable arm-like appendage. “The appendage does not exist in the new map.”
When the legislature filled out the 5th District, it left the neighboring 6th District 9,000 people short, and since the 6th had to grow, the boundaries in the 7th District also had to grow, and then one county was split in half, and then one county was made whole. Corrine Brown would still represent Gainesville, and she would now represent more of Putnam County.
On Aug. 11, the House and Senate voted to pass the new map, sending it off to the Republican governor, Rick Scott, who approved it, and Judge Lewis, who is scheduled to hold hearings Monday.
The district still ran north to south. It still went from Jacksonville to the Orlando area. It was still long and bulbous.
“I’ve been looking at records,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a redistricting expert. As soon as the new proposed map was released, he began poring over data, looking at voting results from previous elections and figuring out how the border changes might impact future ones.
What he found was that some districts, which were already Republican-leaning, became still Republican-leaning, only slightly less so. Brown’s district, which was already Democrat-leaning, became still Democrat-leaning, only slightly less so.
“There were 368,040 people who were moved between districts,” McDonald said. “You think, ‘Wow, that’s important — that’s a lot of people who have been moved around.’ That's a lot of furniture. But what really happened is a red chair is replaced with another red chair, and a blue chair is replaced with another blue chair.”
“It’s a lot of movement,” McDonald said. “But there aren’t any big effects here.”