Florida Legislature Can and Must Start Collecting Public Input to Ensure Floridians Have a Voice in this Decade’s Redistricting Process

This week the Florida House and Senate will convene their redistricting committees that will oversee the once-a-decade drawing of congressional and legislative district maps.

Every 10 years, districts are redrawn based on data collected in the Census. While the actual process of drawing these maps varies by state, in Florida the State House Redistricting and Senate Reapportionment Committees take the lead. In the past, committees were formed before Census data was delivered to prepare for the process and plan for public input, yet this cycle legislative leaders have waited until the last minute to get this process started in the Sunshine State.

Until now, Floridians had been left in the dark about who would draft new maps, and we are still awaiting more details about the process itself. At this point during the last redistricting cycle, public hearings were well underway, therefore it’s extremely concerning that there has been zero guidance for this decade’s process. Public input is an important form of redistricting data, but legislative leaders have used the delay in the Census delivery as an excuse to shorten this important process. There is absolutely no reason why legislators were unable to facilitate this process as they awaited the final Census data this summer. Public input along with a transparent and accessible process are critical to ensure truly representative maps.

In 2010, Floridians overwhelmingly voted to add the Fair Districts Amendments to the state constitution, prohibiting the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts to advantage one party or an incumbent, or with the intent to disadvantage a racial or language minority. The underlying message of the amendments is clear: Voters should be able to choose their politicians, not the other way around.

The redistricting process that followed the implementation of the Fair Districts Amendments in 2012 should have been one of the most transparent in the state’s history. With the newly-added amendments, the committees solicited citizen testimony, held public hearings, and Floridians were able to submit maps and share their thoughts on how the districts should be drawn.

Instead of an open and fair process, however, dishonest dealmaking hidden from public view meant the actual map-drawing was far from transparent. With control over the Governor’s mansion and the State House and Senate, Republicans secretly coordinated with outside political actors to introduce maps that benefited themselves and incumbent legislators before the public hearing process even began. The committees responsible for carrying out the process of the Fair Districts Amendments, supported by Floridians, instead spent years doing everything within their power to undermine them.

Ultimately, some of the congressional and senate districts were invalidated by the courts for constituting an intentional partisan gerrymander. In one opinion, the judge wrote that the Republican legislators who oversaw the process “made a mockery of the legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process.”

This mockery should not happen again. Moving forward, there are concrete steps that can be taken to ensure the maps are as fair as possible. Map drawing should be open to the public, visible to the public in real time, and the public should be able to comment and provide feedback before maps are drafted and on all maps under consideration. On top of this, ample notice of all proceedings are crucial to having meaningful public input, and these hearings must be accessible to all Floridians regardless of language, economic status or disability. This includes virtual public input opportunities during the ongoing pandemic that allows for conversations with our legislators.

Perhaps most importantly, Florida must end its public records exemption for documents related to redistricting. Preserving records and making them publicly available could be a key part of holding lawmakers accountable. As we saw in 2012, lawmakers who don’t believe they will be forced to answer for their work have no incentive to act in the best interest of their constituents.

It’s up to all of us to make sure our voices are heard in this process so that Florida can have fair maps. We must start demanding transparency now, and we must show up because the next decade of progress in Florida is on the line.

Floridians have shown they care about fair maps and equal representation by passing the Fair Districts Amendments and it’s time to make sure our lawmakers show they care too. They can start by getting the public redistricting hearing process started to regain the public’s trust about this decade’s redistricting cycle.

The stakes could not be higher here; the maps that are drawn this year will shape the next decade of politics in Florida and across the country.

Katie Vicsik is the Florida state director for All On The Line.

All On The Line is the grassroots movement to end gerrymandering and restore fairness to our elections and democracy ahead of 2021 redistricting. Formerly OFA.