First Florida redistricting maps tend to favor Republicans

TALLAHASSEE — Despite creating political maps using no political data, two redistricting proposals by Florida's Republican-led Senate favor Republicans, consolidate voters in Democratic districts and compress minority seats, a Times/Herald analysis shows.

But the maps released on Monday by the staff of the state Senate Reapportionment Committee also put incumbent Republicans — such as U.S. Reps. David Rivera of Miami, Steve Southerland of Panama City and Tom Rooney of Palm Beach — in less reliable districts than the ones they represent today.

Senate leaders defended the maps Tuesday, saying they adhere to new constitutionally imposed rules that prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties while also protecting the voting strength of racial and ethnic minorities.

"There wasn't an intent to put more or fewer Democrats or Republicans in any seat because we don't have party data in our software,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, head of the Senate redistricting committee. "We followed the law and it inconvenienced some Republicans and it inconvenienced some Democrats. No matter how a line is drawn in a House, Senate, or congressional district, someone is going to see a boogeyman behind the line."

The maps are the first in a series of redistricting proposals to be debated by lawmakers in January and include many of the sprawling districts that voters thought they were eliminating when they voted for the so-called Fair Districts amendments on the November 2010 ballot. The reason, said Gaetz, is the need to give top priority to protecting existing minority districts even if "the geometry is far from pretty."

"This really does permanently create gerrymandered districts, but that's the way Fair Districts was written,'' said Henry Kelley, an Okaloosa County Tea Party leader. He added that the Senate maps "were brilliantly engineered to protect incumbents and get incumbents re-elected," he said.

Senate leaders did not include voter registration information or how districts voted in previous elections when they drew their maps, but using data provided by the House redistricting committee, the Times/Herald looked at how the proposed Senate districts performed in the past two elections.

The analysis shows that of the 27 congressional districts, 14 of them strongly favor Republicans and favored both John McCain in the 2008 presidential race and Rick Scott in the 2010 race for governor. Another 10 congressional districts strongly favor Democrats and supported Barack Obama for president and Alex Sink for governor.

In the state Senate, the proposed maps strengthen some Republican districts but weaken others. According to the Times/Herald analysis, 24 of the 40 Senate districts are solidly Republican based on performance in the last two elections and 14 are Democratic — up from the current 12 held by Democrats — and another two lean Republican.

Among the Democratic-leaning districts in the congressional plan is District 25, currently represented by Rivera. The Senate map condenses its size and makes it 61 percent Hispanic, with 37 percent of the registered voters Democratic, 35 percent Republican and 25 percent no party affiliation. It also has a voting record that supported both Sink and Obama in the last elections.

Rivera said Monday that if the Senate map becomes law, he would seek to run for District 21, a Hispanic district with a 40 percent Republican majority. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents the current District 21, said he also plans to run in that district. Both congressmen on Tuesday dismissed the possibility they would be pitted against each other.

"This is the first of various maps that will be considered and changing in the coming weeks and months,'' Rivera said. "When the reapportionment process concludes, every candidate will know where they are running.''

Three other proposed congressional districts are toss-ups: One new district, drawn in Central Florida to favor a Hispanic candidate, is 38 percent Democrat, 38 percent Republican and 24 percent no party affiliation. And two districts — currently represented by Republican U.S. Reps. Tom Rooney of Palm Beach and Steve Southerland of Panama City — could lean Democratic. Southerland's proposed district, for example, supported Sink over Scott 51 to 44 percent.

The congressional map also strengthens Republican districts by using a technique established 20 years ago by packing Democrats into black majority districts, making the surrounding districts more Republican.

In the proposed congressional District 17, for example, Frederica Wilson's Miami-based district is 70 percent Democratic. In proposed District 23, currently represented by Democrat Alcee Hastings, Democrats make up 66 percent of the voters.

By contrast, all of the congressional districts with a Republican voting majority have a voter concentration of between 30 percent to 50 percent Republican.