It all seemed so promising. Last month, a Florida trial judge declared the state’s congressional maps, one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation, in violation of the state’s constitution. In 2012, Florida voters narrowly preferred President Obama to his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. Yet Florida’s congressional maps enabled Republicans to capture 17 of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Judge Terry P. Lewis’s opinion offered hope that, come the next election, Florida could have a congressional delegation that looked a bit more like Florida.
On Friday, however, Lewis threw cold water on these hopes. Responding to Lewis’s order to redraw the state’s maps, Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature responded with new maps that make only minor changes to the old ones. Lewis’s Friday order approves these new maps, and it also holds that the 2014 election may proceed using the old maps. So Florida Republicans will get to run two full elections using maps that were declared unconstitutional. And, when the new maps take effect in 2016, they will make only minor changes to the existing gerrymander.
Admittedly, Lewis’s original decision declaring the congressional maps unconstitutional does suggest that the state would receive only limited relief from gerrymandering. The plaintiffs in this case challenge nine of Florida’s congressional districts as unconstitutional gerrymanders, Lewis only struck down two — Districts 5 & 10. But Lewis’s original opinion did suggest that the state would need to undo at least part of the GOP-friendly gerrymander that governed elections in 2012. District 5 is a worm-like thing that snakes from the northeast corner of the state down near its midpoint. District 10 had an “odd-shaped appendage which wraps under and around District 5, running between District 5 and 9,” according to Judge Lewis. This meant that they violated a rule prohibiting districts that “have an unusual shape, a bizarre design, or an unnecessary appendage”
Moreover, as Lewis noted, Districts 5, 7, 9 and 10 were shaped the way they are, at least in part, because a GOP political consultant suggested the be redrawn to transform them “from being four Democratic performing or leaning seats in early maps . . . to two Democratic and two Republican performing seats in the enacted map.” His original opinion, in other words, suggested that the state would need redraw the maps in a way that would likely transform two Republican districts into Democratic districts.
Data suggests that the new maps may not produce a result that is very different than the old maps, however. One reason the old maps were such a successful gerrymander, for example, is that they packed a large number of African American voters — voters who tend to prefer Democrats — into the worm-like District 5. Under the old maps, about 50 percent of District 5’s voters are black. Meanwhile, just 10 percent of the voters in District 10 are black. Under the new maps, 48 percent of District 5’s voters will be African Americans, and 12 percent of District 10’s voters will also be black.
This tweak may be enough to make Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), who represents the 10th District, work harder in 2016. Webster won his race by a little over 3 points in 2012. But African American turnout was also unusually high in 2012, in no small part because America’s first black president was running what is almost certain to be the last race of his political career. President Obama will not be on the ballot in 2016.
Judge Lewis, for his part, explained in his order upholding the new maps that “[t]he Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution,” and his “‘duty’ is not to select the best plan, but rather to decide whether the one adopted by the Legislature is valid.” If Florida’s new maps are valid, however, then that suggests that Florida’s constitutional safeguards against gerrymandering are much weaker than they once appeared.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit say they plan to appeal Judge Lewis’s most recent ruling.