Destroyed records. Shadowy projects with names like “Sputnik” and “Frankenstein.” And a college student whose identity was stolen to provide cover for political operatives.
Welcome to Florida, where the tentacles of gerrymandering are as tightly coiled around the statehouse as an invasive Burmese python.
Take Florida’s infamous 5th Congressional District, for example. It runs from near Jacksonville in the north, hooks east for a few miles, then west for a few miles, narrows to the width of an interstate highway for a while, cuts west all the way over to Gainesville, then swivels back east and southeast, finally arriving at Orlando, a distance of about 140 miles, sweeping in black neighborhoods along the way in order to create a “minority-majority” district.
It’s been described by a federal judge as “visually not compact,” “bizarrely shaped” and defying “traditional political boundaries” with what critics called “finger like extensions,” “narrow and bizarrely shaped tentacles” and “hook-like shapes.” It resembles no known species or geometric form. It does look an awful lot like the Potomac River from the air, however.
The 5th was recently ranked by The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham as one of “America’s most gerrymandered” congressional districts.
After a five-year battle over the Sunshine State’s shadowy election system, however, all this could finally be changing.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state legislature must redraw at least eight congressional districts, including the 5th, that had been gerrymandered to favor the GOP.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said the court affirmed “the trial court’s factual findings and ultimate determination that the redistricting process and resulting map were ‘taint(ed)’ by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents.”
But Pariente’s decision went much further than the trial court’s, slamming political consultants and politicians for their secrecy — including deleted e-mails — and essentially arguing that the state legislature could no longer be trusted to draw its own districts.
The Supreme Court gave Florida legislators 100 days to hold a special session to draw a new congressional map, and instructed a lower court to implement a review of the resulting districts.
The decision comes a year after a Leon County Circuit Court ruled that Republican political operatives “hijacked” Florida’s redistricting process and corrupted the state’s election map with “improper partisan intent.” At the time, however, Judge Terry Lewis only ordered two districts to be moderately redrawn.
Thursday’s decision was far more drastic.
“The Florida Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to Florida’s political landscape Thursday,” wrote Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas.
“The new maps are likely to reconfigure nearly all of the state’s 27 congressional districts, open the door to new candidates, and threaten incumbents, who will now face a new set of boundary lines and constituents close to the 2016 election,” Klas wrote.
It’s unclear whether the ruling — or the changes it commands — could have an effect on which way the swing state tilts in national elections next November.
Although the story of Florida’s at times absurdly crafted congressional districts is far from over, the Supreme Court’s decision closes a crucial chapter in the state’s five-year struggle to shape its election map.
The saga began back in 2010, when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved — despite objections from the Republican-controlled legislature — two constitutional amendments requiring lawmakers to redraw congressional and state legislative districts along more cohesive and less partisan lines.
The maps were redrawn before the 2012 midterm elections, approved by the legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
That same year, however, a coalition of voters’ rights groups sued, arguing that instead of remedying the problem, Republican legislators and operatives had made it worse, operating in secrecy to protect incumbent GOP candidates from challengers.
An explosive two-week trial — some of it held behind closed doors — last summer revealed serious political machinations.
GOP political consultants testified as to how they created maps with names such as “Sputnik,” “Schmedloff” and “Frankenstein.”
These maps — or ones just like them — were then mysteriously submitted to the state legislature under the name of a former Florida State University student named Alex Posada, who came forward to deny that he had anything to do with them.
“For the first time in state history, sitting legislators were called to testify and they admitted to routinely deleting redistricting records,” Klas wrote about last summer’s trial. “A legislative staffer admitted to giving a flash drive of maps to a GOP political operative two weeks before they became public. Phone records of a House speaker and his right hand man, sought for more than a year, were never produced. And legislative leaders acknowledged they met secretly with their staff and political operatives to discuss strategy.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued that all of this was proof that Republican consultants had erected a “shadow” system to corrupt the redistricting process.
“You have to wonder,” Judge Lewis said in court at the time.
“Since many of the e-mails were deleted or destroyed, we still may have only a partial picture of the behind-the-scenes political tactics,” Pariente echoed on Thursday.
Move the slider to the right to see the congressional redistricting before the 2014 court ruling. (Maps via Florida Senate)
Lewis ordered legislators to hold a special session last August to alter districts 5 and 10. He then approved the slightly modified districts, and allowed them to go into effect after the 2014 midterm election.
But Pariente has now scrapped that map, suggesting that the 5th District be dismantled completely.
“Retaining the same basic shape, while merely tweaking a few aspects of the district, does not erase its history or undo the improper intent that the trial court found,” she wrote. The court also struck down the idea that the district’s unorthodox shape was to protect minority voters.
“We conclude that the Legislature cannot justify its enacted configuration. Despite the Legislature’s repeated contentions that a North-South orientation of the district is the only option and is essential to avoid diminishing the ability of black voters to elect a candidate of their choice, there is simply insufficient evidence to support that assertion,” she wrote, adding that “the Legislature’s configuration was entitled to no deference in light of the trial court’s finding of unconstitutional intent.”
Pariente ruled that eight districts must be redrawn, as well as “other districts affected by the redrawing.”
While both the trial court and Supreme Court decisions outraged Republicans, Pariente’s ruling has also upset at least one Democrat: Corrine Brown, who currently represents District 5 in Congress.
Brown, who is African American, slammed the decision as “seriously flawed” and in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. She argued that dissolving her district would water down the black vote.
“As a people, African-Americans have fought too hard to get to where we are now, and we certainly not taking any steps backwards,” Brown said in a statement.
In her opinion, Pariente pointed out that the “Court’s role is not to select a redistricting map that performs better for one political party or another, but is instead to uphold the purposes of the constitutional provision approved by Florida voters to outlaw partisan intent in redistricting.”
The plaintiffs in the case cheered the Supreme Court’s decision.
“This is a complete victory for the people of Florida who passed the Fair District amendment and sought fair representation where the Legislature didn’t pick their voters,” David King, lead attorney for the coalition of voter groups challenging the election map, told the Miami Herald. “The Supreme Court accepted every challenge we made and ordered the Legislature to do it over.”