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Time constraints will likely end plans to take Florida redistricting process 'on the road'

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, filed a proposal Jan. 8, 2021, to establish an Office of Resiliency.
News Service of Florida
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, filed a proposal Jan. 8, 2021, to establish an Office of Resiliency.

Proposed maps for new congressional and legislative districts could be in front of state lawmakers before they begin the annual legislative session in January, but public input might be limited to a special website and people who journey to the Capitol.

Legislators and staff members likely don’t have enough time to travel the state to take comments for the once-a-decade reapportionment process, leaders said, while the potential for virtual meetings or live-streamed public input sessions has not been determined.

“I believe at this point, yes, I don't see where there would be time to do an on-the-road roadshow,” Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said when responding to a question Monday after his committee met.

Rodrigues also said Senate subcommittees on the legislative and congressional lines will begin to meet in November with a direction to have maps ready by the start of the legislative session.

House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, agreed Tuesday that a “condensed timeline” to complete the map-making process likely means the House will follow a similar path as the Senate.

That also means limits on how the public can participate.

“It's a cooperative effort between the chambers,” Leek said. “And right now, the agreement is we're going to make everything available through the website and give the citizens the tools, the very tools that we have, and the very data that we have, and allow participation that way. We don't have anything beyond that right now.”

The process, which was delayed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. Census count, is expected to be a dominant issue during the 60-day legislative session, which will begin Jan. 11.

The maps must be finalized before qualifying for next year’s congressional and legislative races begins June 13.

This is the second reapportionment process since voters in 2010 approved what are known as the “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments, which were intended to prohibit partisan gerrymandering or maps that favored incumbents.

Courts overturned congressional and state Senate maps drawn during the 2012 reapportionment process for failing to meet requirements of the Fair Districts amendments, forcing districts to be redrawn.

Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, pointed to the importance of public hearings, even if streamed online, as many people can’t take time off to travel to Tallahassee. The League of Women Voters backed the Fair Districts amendments.

“That interaction of being able to actually talk to you virtually, is next to actually being physically present,” Scoon told the Senate committee. “And that's really, really important to hear your response. Or if there's a question, you might ask me a question … that is non-existent with putting a comment in a box. And you also want to encourage people to believe in the system and to feel like they're heard. And there's nothing like having a conversation to actually give that impression.”

House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said the final maps will lead to litigation and called Republicans’ repeated refrains about the process being transparent “a joke.”

“Unless the Sunshine Law says that you have to have something out in the open, I've learned that in this building, people will keep it in the shadows as long as humanly possible,” Jenne told reporters Monday.

“Look, I just have a feeling there's going to be lawsuits,” Jenne added. “That's where the transparency is going to come from when it's forced to be transparent due to a lawsuit. So, we'll have to see what happens. But, you know, as far as transparency goes, I'm not going to hold my breath because I've watched the subterfuge, agent provocateurs, I watched everything thrown at this process. And none of it really deals with transparency.”

Recalling that the map-making a decade ago resulted in lawsuits that weren’t completed until 2016, Jenne said the current process could be “dangerous,” as the state is going “to have probably the most limited amount of community input that we've ever seen on these maps.”

“To me, that is wild,” Jenne said. “For me living in Broward County, to go ahead and point up here and say, Tallahassee, this is how you should have your maps drawn, without drawing down any information or any communication from the public at large, is going to be problematic.”

The Fair Districts Coalition Executive Committee, which is made up of several groups such as the League of Women Voters, sent a letter to lawmakers this week urging that they pledge to conduct a transparent, constitutionally compliant process.

“As it stands today, the only opportunity for real-time public input is a limited time at the end of committee meetings,” the letter said. “So, to provide input, Floridians must drive to Tallahassee, during business hours, and are forced to choose between multiple committee and subcommittee meetings on different days of the week --- which gets even trickier when two of the committees are meeting at the exact same time, like the House Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee and House State Legislative Redistricting Subcommittee have been doing.”
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News Service of Florida