By: Jonathan Gonzalez
After the first round of judicial wrangling over two allegedly gerrymandered congressional districts, a Florida judge ordered on July 10th 2014 that the Florida fifth and tenth districts be sent back to the drawing board. The dispute arose from the Florida House of Representative’s mandated redrawing of the state’s congressional districts under amendments to Florida’s constitution passed during the 2010 election cycle. The amendments were intended to ensure that legislative districts were drawn cohesively and without favoring any political party. The Republican controlled state legislature interpreted “cohesive” as a mandate to pack African American voters into one district.
The first redrawing of Florida’s fifth district, seemingly drafted in the likeness of a Burmese Python, slithered from the northern tip of Orange County along the college town of Gainesville all the way to the Jacksonville city limits. African American Congresswoman, Corrine Brown (D), holds the congressional seat and the district contained a plurality of African American voters prior to redistricting. As a result of the redistricting proposal, African American voters would have become the majority population in the district after draining Black voters from Florida’s seventh district. Judge Lewis of Florida’s second circuit noted that President Obama would have failed to win a majority of voters in the seventh district during the 2008 election as a result of this packing. Lewis termed the redistricting “a mockery” of Florida’s political process and ordered that the maps be redrawn immediately. And they have.
Yet, lawyers for the plaintiffs rebuked the Florida legislature’s hasty efforts to remedy the situation, which indicates that Florida’s latest politically charged legal battle will not be resolved easily. State legislators insist that they conformed to each and every word of the court’s order, but the plaintiffs point to the similarity of potential election outcomes. Judge Lewis approved the second version of the district on August 22nd and the plaintiffs plan to appeal.
The newest version of the fifth district looks very different from its originally drafted form and shifts over three-hundred thousand voters across districts. Florida’s fifth remains elongated, but the contours of the snake in the north have been filled in to give it more of the appearance of a tobacco pipe stood on end with a thin trail of smoke emanating from its bowl. The lack of a genuine shift in political power despite the major revision surprised Professor Michael McDonald of the University of Florida’s Political Science Department. McDonald’s research seemingly confirms the plaintiff’s fears that the Florida legislature has simply shifted the borders as slightly as possible while adhering to Judge Lewis’s order to better geographically round the district. Lewis himself admits that “District 5 in the remedial map is not a model of compactness,” but he also agrees with the Florida legislature that the district is much improved even though the political balance remains the same.
Judge Lewis’s acceptance of the fifth district’s new boundaries is surprising not only due the similarities of the political outcomes, but also because of the contrast between the powerful rhetoric of his original order and his lukewarm acceptance of the map’s second version. Little has changed and it would seem incumbent on a circuit court judge not only to hold to the substance of his original opinion but also to protect the significance of each and every vote in Florida. Perhaps Lewis wants the matter settled before for the 2014 election. Perhaps he thinks the Florida legislature met its constitutional burden. Only time and the inevitable appeal will tell whether the Florida legislature redistricted appropriately.