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Senate Test Drives Redistricting Software

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 7, 2011 --

While lawmakers in the House have joined a lawsuit to strike down a new constitutional amendment that outlines how lawmakers must draw new congressional districts, their counterparts in the Florida Senate Monday were practicing playing under the rules as they are now.

“We’re agnostic as to the litigation right now,” Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Monday. “Our view is the constitution is the constitution and the laws are the laws, the Supreme Court cases and lower court cases are what they are. We’re not going to be waiting for any court case to be settled in order to provide you with block-by-block Census data.”

With that mindset, Gaetz led the 22-member Reapportionment Committee on a walk-through of the software that will be used to create the districts, using data from the last time political districts were drawn in Florida in 2002. This time around however, Amendments 5 and 6 passed last year mean that the political precincts have to be compact and not favor incumbents or political parties.

Gaetz’s remarks Monday were a bit of a contrast from comments made last month by a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon after that chamber joined a lawsuit against one of the proposed amendments.

"The U.S. Constitution delegates authority to the state legislatures to draw congressional districts," House spokeswoman Katie Betta said. "The House believes its constitutional authority has been impeded by Amendment 6."

The lawsuit against Amendment 6, which puts the requirements in place for congressional districts, was filed by
U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who argue it could disenfranchise minority voters who may not be able to be protected by districts drawn to ensure minority access. Amendment 5 deals with legislative districts.

Despite the House’s position, Gaetz said the Senate will play by the new rules until told otherwise.

“If some court somewhere gives us a different instruction about some aspect of election law then we’ll pay attention to it, but no court has, so this chairman is not pretending that there might be some implication until there is, if there is,” he continued. “Until some court tells different, Amendments 5 and 6 are in the constitution.”

However, Gaetz showed some frustration of his own with the redistricting requirements. In one scenario created during the workshop, drawing Gaetz’s Panhandle district to the contiguous and compact requirements of the new amendments put him into the same district as another lawmaker, which he said would appear to violate Amendments 5 and 6 because that would disfavor current officeholders.

Still, the senator who will lead what are almost sure to be contentious battles in the chamber over political districts said Monday he just wanted his fellow lawmakers to familiarize themselves with the equipment.

“What we’re doing here is a scrimmage, this is not the game,” Gaetz told the panel. “You’re learning how to use the tools, we don’t have the block-by-block Census information yet, so that’s why we’re not using live ammunition, to use another analogy to stretch the point.”

Additionally, long-time Senate Reapportionment Staff Director John Guthrie told lawmakers as he walked them through the way the Florida DistrictBuilder software would work told them that the technology has gotten a lot simpler, even if the rules for creating districts have apparently gotten more complicated.

“Redistricting technology has advanced by light years over the last four decades,” Guthrie said Monday. “As recently as the 1980s we were redistricting with paper maps and adding machines.”


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