The legal team that uncovered the shadow redistricting process that invalidated Florida’s congressional and Senate districts didn’t rely just on maps and cloak-and-dagger emails to prove that legislators broke the law. The best clues came in the form of data — millions of census blocks — delivered electronically and found in the files of political operatives who fought for two years to shield it. The Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in July that lawmakers were guilty of violating the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution and ordered them to redraw the congressional map. It was a landmark ruling that declared the entire process had been “tainted with improper political intent” — a verdict so broad that it prompted an admission from the state Senate that lawmakers had violated the Constitution when they drew the Senate redistricting plan in 2012. The Legislature has scheduled a special session in October to start over on that map. But the breakthrough for the legal team — lawyers for the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, a coalition of Democrat-leaning voters and their redistricting experts — came just days before the May 19, 2014, trial on the congressional map was set to begin.
A little-noticed lawsuit brought by a Maryland man challenging the state’s contorted congressional districts will be heard this fall by the Supreme Court — where it has the potential to open a new line of constitutional attack for opponents of gerrymandering. Stephen M. Shapiro, a former federal worker from Bethesda, argues that the political map drawn by state Democrats after the 2010 census violated the First Amendment rights of Republicans by placing them in districts in which they were in the minority, marginalizing them based solely on their political views. The issue before the Supreme Court is whether a lower court judge had the authority to dismiss the suit before it was heard by a three-judge panel. But Shapiro hopes the justices will also take an interest in his underlying claim. Most redistricting court challenges are rooted in the 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. If Shapiro’s approach is endorsed by federal courts, supporters say, it could open a new approach to challenging partisan political maps.
The legal arguments about Florida’s political maps continue to mushroom. While the Florida Supreme Court and the Legislature grapple with how congressional districts will be drawn, more legal fights are building in federal courts. Voting-rights groups Friday formally sought to intervene in a federal lawsuit filed this month by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, who is among the most-outspoken opponents of a redistricting process spurred by the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts requirements. The groups, which helped spearhead voter approval of the requirements in 2010, argued in a court document that Brown’s position in the case would “eviscerate the Fair Districts amendments.” Also late last week, a coalition that includes state Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, filed a separate lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Fair Districts amendments — and the way they have been carried out — violate constitutional free-speech and due-process rights.
Facing long odds at retaking the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats are pushing hard for redistricting reform as a potential route back into control of the lower chamber. The legislation is not new –– many Democrats, including Pelosi, have been advocating for independent redistricting panels for at least a decade –– nor is it going anywhere in a Congress led by Republicans who are benefitting handsomely under the current process. But Pelosi’s co-sponsorship of this year’s reform proposal marks a rare move for a party leader who seldom lends an official signature to individual bills. Her formal endorsement is both an escalation of support for non-partisan redistricting and an indication that Democratic leaders want to rein in gerrymandering and lay the groundwork for reform heading into the 2016 elections.
A bipartisan group of voters added to the list of redistricting lawsuits this week, filing a case in federal court challenging the Fair Districts amendments of the Florida Constitution as unconstitutional. The group, which includes some Alachua-based Republicans who call themselves the “Conservative Coalition for Free Speech and Association,” is suing Secretary of State Ken Detzner in an attempt to invalidate the anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters in 2010. Several members of the Alachua coalition fought the release of their private emails in pending redistricting lawsuits, claiming it violates their First Amendment rights. The court ordered the release of a limited number of those documents, which showed that many of them were political operatives engaged in what the court called a “shadow redistricting” process that aimed to influence the Legislature’s drawing of its maps in a way that favored Republicans.
Maryland: Redistricting Reform Commission holds first meeting with just 10 weeks to act | Maryland Reporter
Gov. Larry Hogan’s 11-member Redistricting Reform Commission, created on Aug. 6 by executive order, met for first time near the State House Thursday where they outlined their first steps to reform the process of drawing Maryland’s congressional and legislative district lines. In order to combat Maryland’s A+ grade in gerrymandering, an unlucky subject to be excelling at, the commission plans to hold four to five “regional summits,” or public hearings, over the next two months. The final outcome will be a report outlining voters concerns with redistricting, due to the governor and General Assembly leaders by Nov. 3, less than 10 weeks from now. The commission will have to produce a quick turnaround with a “fairly aggressive” schedule, according to the governor’s office. In addition to the report, the commission is tasked with recommending a constitutional amendment on congressional and legislative redistricting to be introduced during the Maryland General Assembly’s next legislative session.
I have lived in this town almost as long as the courthouse columns and have never seen the like. Gerrymandering has produced exactly the opposite outcome envisioned by the cartographers. The drama is playing out on Business Loop 70, where contiguous business interests have spent time and money concocting a community improvement district like the one encompassing downtown. Moreover, they have engaged former downtown guru Carrie Gartner as their director, the one person in the world with the most experience designing and creating a CID district in Columbia, Missouri. According to state law, a CID board draws boundaries and property owners in the area decide whether to ask the city to establish the district with power to enact sales taxes. If no residents live within the district boundaries, the vote to establish the sales tax is left to property owners. Property assessments already have been approved by business interests in the district. Both special taxes must be ratified by the city council. Gartner & Co. drew their district lines very carefully to include all the interested business interests and no nearby residents. But they made a mistake, failing to exclude a lone dwelling located on the Mizzou North campus where University of Missouri student Jen Henderson lives. Henderson is a registered voter and says she is skeptical of the district. If she follows through with a “no” vote, the district idea is dead.
In the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, the Republican and Democratic Party candidates for one of North Carolina’s Senate seats, together with the various political action committees backing and attacking them, spent a combined total of $111-million (U.S.). That’s more than Canada’s three main political parties, including 900-plus candidates, spent in the 2011 federal election. Canada’s system of political finance isn’t perfect, and it has grown slightly worse in the past year. Thanks to the Fair Elections Act, the current election’s spending limits are more than double 2011’s. Canada’s process of figuring out who gets to vote has also become a little less perfect, again courtesy of the Fair Elections Act. But compared to the way elections are run in the United States, Canada’s system is still awfully close to nirvana. Which explains why, if you’re an American hoping to fix what’s wrong with America’s broken democratic process, you end up proposing reforms that look a lot like, well, Canada.
When it turns political, the American arts scene sometimes descends into such heavy-handed didacticism that it can make Ayn Rand seem as frolicsome as P.G. Wodehouse. So it is a delight to report that the Virginia Political Repertory’s production of “Special Session: Redistricting” avoids this trap, and instead delivers keen observations on homo politicus. The script cleverly weaves two seemingly unrelated plot lines: congressional redistricting and judicial appointments. These might seem unlikely topics for compelling drama, but in the deft hands of the cast they become powerful vehicles for exploring the contradictions of contemporary governance and the foibles of the political class.
With just four days left until the end of a special session called to redraw the state’s congressional map, the Senate Reapportionment Committee on Monday approved a plan that changes lines for districts in Southwest and Central Florida, setting up a potential collision with the House. Even as members of the House rejected an amendment to a “base map” developed by legislative staff members ahead of the session, the Senate panel approved on a voice vote new boundaries proposed by Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president. Lawmakers returned to Tallahassee last week following a July ruling by the Florida Supreme Court striking down eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts for violating the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by voters in 2010. It is the first of two redistricting sessions scheduled to be held this year. Another is needed to redraw Senate lines after a lawsuit dealing with those districts was settled after the Supreme Court decision on the congressional plan.
The state Department of Justice asked Tuesday that a lawsuit filed last month over the 2011 state legislative district map be dismissed because the lawsuit presents a political question that the court cannot answer. The lawsuit was filed by a group of 12 Democrats from across Wisconsin, led by retired UW-Madison Law School professor William Whitford, and asks that the map’s boundaries be thrown out as “one of the worst gerrymanders in modern American history.”
The public never got its say on changes to Virginia congressional district boundaries and the state’s political redistricting process. But federal judges soon will. A public hearing on redistricting ended abruptly Monday when the House Privileges and Elections Committee chairman, Mark L. Cole, R-Spotsylvania, refused to take further testimony after announcing that the Senate had adjourned the special legislative session hours after it began. Cole interrupted Diana Egozcue, president of Virginia NOW and the sixth of 19 scheduled speakers, with the announcement, “We’re no longer in session, so we can no longer take your testimony.” House Republican leaders appeared shell-shocked by the Senate maneuver, which ensures the General Assembly will not meet a Sept. 1 deadline imposed by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to fix unconstitutional defects in the redistricting plan that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed in January 2012. Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a statement that explicitly kicked the issue back to the courts and declared, “The opportunity for a legislative remedy has ended.” McAuliffe said he was going to send a letter to the courts. “They need to get this redistricting done,” he said in a meeting with reporters outside the Executive Mansion.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago to rectify a “clear and simple wrong.” Throughout the Jim Crow South, African Americans were systematically denied their right to vote through tactics like literacy tests and poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act outlawed these and other targeted voting restrictions. It also sought to prevent future violations in particularly problematic regions of the country through Section 5 of the act, which requires certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures for “pre-clearance” by the federal government. This pre-clearance safeguard has allowed the Department of Justice to block discriminatory changes to voting laws over 700 times between 1982 and 2006. Unfortunately, this pre-clearance protection was dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, just a day before the court also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While Section 5 was technically left untouched, with Chief Justice Roberts writing for the majority, the court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which determined which jurisdictions would be subject to pre-clearance, was unconstitutional because it relied upon formulas that were out of date. The effect of this ruling essentially stripped the federal government of its ability to block discriminatory voting laws in those places until a new formula is established.
A pair of voting-rights groups whose lawsuit led to the state’s current congressional districts being struck down by the Florida Supreme Court say that a new proposal appears to be tilted to favor a Republican congressman in South Florida. In a letter to state House and Senate leaders, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida said a “base map” crafted by legislative staff members and currently working its way through a special session largely follows the Supreme Court’s ruling. The court last month found that current districts violated the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” standards approved by Florida voters in 2010. But League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman and Common Cause Chairman Peter Butzin said the base map appears to try to protect Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo after the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to unite the city of Homestead in one district. That shift would add thousands of African-American voters to Curbelo’s swing district.
The public never got its say on changes to Virginia congressional district boundaries and the state’s political redistricting process.
But federal judges soon will. A public hearing on redistricting ended abruptly Monday when the House Privileges and Elections Committee chairman, Mark L. Cole, R-Spotsylvania, refused to take further testimony after announcing that the Senate had adjourned the special legislative session hours after it began. Cole interrupted Diana Egozcue, president of Virginia NOW and the sixth of 19 scheduled speakers, with the announcement, “We’re no longer in session, so we can no longer take your testimony.”
House Republican leaders appeared shell-shocked by the Senate maneuver, which ensures the General Assembly will not meet a Sept. 1 deadline imposed by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to fix unconstitutional defects in the redistricting plan that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell signed in January 2012.
As Florida legislators struggled last week to draw a congressional district map that meets a court mandate, it became clear what they would end up with would be far from perfect. “Bring me a redistricting commission or something, for goodness sakes,” exclaimed state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, as lawmakers convened for the second special session to revise a congressional redistricting plan already rejected by the court. “Bring me something that works!” Redistricting reformers thought they had found a better way when they persuaded 63 percent of Florida’s voters in 2010 to approve the “Fair District” amendments to the Florida Constitution that outlawed gerrymandering and banned lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts favoring or disfavoring incumbents or political parties. Taking politics out of the most political of acts turned out not to be so easy.
Florida: New boundaries for Corrine Brown district highlight conflict between federal protections, state anti-gerrymandering law | Florida Times-Union
Of eight congressional districts the Florida Supreme Court required the Legislature to fix, none is more controversial than U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s District 5. None of the others will change more than this district, which winds south to Orlando but the court says should stretch west to Tallahassee. District 5 and its twists and turns have also been the focus of numerous legal challenges dating back to the 1990s, and those challenges are likely to continue long after new maps are approved this week. Ending the kind of gerrymandering that defines District 5 was the focus of the Fair Districts Amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2010. But legal experts and lawmakers say there is a catch: Compact districts make it harder to create the type of coalition minorities need to elect one of their own to Congress, an effort protected under the federal Voting Rights Act.
As Florida legislators struggled last week to draw a congressional district map that meets a court mandate, it became clear that what they would end up with would be far from perfect. “Bring me a redistricting commission or something, for goodness sakes,” exclaimed Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, as lawmakers convened for the second special session to revise a congressional redistricting plan that had been rejected by the court. “Bring me something that works!” Redistricting reformers thought they had found a better way when they persuaded 63 percent of Florida’s voters in 2010 to approve the “Fair District” amendments to the Florida Constitution that outlawed gerrymandering and banned lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. But taking politics out of the most political of acts turned out not to be so easy.
Fighting to save her congressional district, Rep. Corrine Brown publicly addressed two state legislative committees on Thursday and predicted the new seat drawn by legislators will disenfranchise minorities. But Brown, an African-American Democrat elected in 1992 to a heavily Democratic seat, offered no data to back up her claims and instead spoke of racial injustice — from Trayvon Martin’s shooting to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s current district, which zigs and zags from heavily black areas in Jacksonville to Orlando, has been held up as a poster-child for gerrymandering. Because so many African Americans vote Democrat, her current district helps “bleach” adjacent districts, making them more white and more Republican, giving the edge to the GOP, which also controls the Legislature, where the maps are drawn.
Perhaps, as a critic of the Legislature’s first two drafts of congressional districts has said, the third time will be the charm. Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday to once again draw a map for each of Florida’s 27 congressional seats. It is a drama being watched in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., as shifting lines just a few miles in one direction or another could decide the futures of several members of the state’s U.S. House delegation. The session follows a July 9 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that the state’s existing congressional map violates one of the two anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments voters approved in 2010. Lawmakers drew the initial lines during the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2012, then tweaked them last year after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said Republican political operatives had managed to improperly influence the process. But the Supreme Court — which has a relatively liberal majority and has generally but not always ruled against the GOP-controlled Legislature in redistricting cases — said Lewis’ ruling didn’t go far enough and that at least eight of the districts should be redrawn. The rulings led lawmakers to agree to also redraw the state Senate map — another special session for that purpose is scheduled in October — and also has led some Republicans to question the justices’ decision.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) is breaking with other Democrats again over redistricting, saying she’s open to an independent commission proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R). “I have long supported redistricting reforms to end the damage partisan gerrymandering does to our democracy,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing Governor Hogan’s announcement to see whether it is truly independent of partisan politics.” All but one of Maryland’s eight congressional districts are held by Democrats, thanks in part to boundaries drawn by Democratic leadership after the 2010 Census. Hogan is creating an 11-member panel to recommend a new process. The Maryland Democratic Party says the lines shouldn’t be redrawn until there’s nationwide agreement on reform.
In 2013, when the Supreme Court effectively struck down a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, the disagreement between the five conservative Justices in the majority and the four moderate liberals in dissent was about history as much as law. For the conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., wrote, “Our country has changed” since the statute became law fifty years ago. Devices that once blocked minorities’ access to the ballot, like the voter fees known as poll taxes, had been outlawed for more than forty years. The percentages of whites and minorities who register to vote and then go to the polls are approaching parity in the South and other parts of the country where, half a century ago, they were far apart. It is no longer necessary, Roberts went on, for the federal government to pre-approve any proposed changes to election laws in states with records of entrenched discrimination, as the statute had required since 1965.
Two Florida Republican Party officials have filed a federal lawsuit to block the state’s anti-gerrymandering constitutional clauses, arguing the provisions limit First Amendment speech and amount to “thought policing.” The lawsuit, filed Tuesday night in the conservative-leaning Pensacola division of the Northern District of Florida, comes less than a week before the start of a special legislative session to redraw some of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Citing email correspondence from GOP consultants, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that at least eight congressional districts were improperly drawn and violated the 2010 voter-approved “Fair Districts” amendments that prohibited lawmakers from intentionally drawing political boundaries to favor or disfavored political parties or incumbents. But Pasco County Republican Party chairman Randy Maggard and his Walton County counterpart, Tim Norris, say the amendments themselves infringe on their right to free speech. They also say the court’s interpretation of the law ultimately violates their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights because members of political parties are unfairly limited in speaking with elected representatives about redistricting in the future.
Two voting-rights organizations that led the legal battle against congressional districts later found to be unconstitutional called Monday for a new map to be drawn in public — a demand swiftly rejected by legislative leaders. The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida released a letter to Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, taking issue with the top lawmakers’ announcement that legislative staff and lawyers would be secluded as they draw a map intended to comply with a Florida Supreme Court decision rejecting current districts. That map will serve as a “base” for lawmakers as they consider amendments and give ultimate approval to a congressional redistricting plan during a special legislative session that starts next Monday.
National: Democratic Governors Association Unveils a Plan to Fight Gerrymandering | The New York Times
The Democratic Governors Association is creating a fund dedicated to winning races in states where governors have some control over congressional redistricting, the party’s first step in a long-range campaign to make control of the House more competitive. Billed as “Unrig the Map,” the effort will target 18 of the 35 states in which governors play a role in redistricting, and where new congressional maps could allow Democrats to win House seats that are now drawn in a way to favor Republicans. The fund will be used for governors’ races over the next five years, leading up to the 2020 census. Democratic officials said that they hoped to raise “tens of millions” for the effort and that they believed they could gain as many as 44 House seats if lines were more favorably redrawn in the 18 battleground states. Many of those states still have Republican-controlled legislatures, but with Democratic governors in place they could at least veto the next round of congressional maps and send the disputes to the courts.
Lost amidst the frenzy of coverage of the Supreme Court’s rulings about the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage was a case involving the constitutionality of an independent commission to draw congressional districts in Arizona. Through a ballot measure in 2000, the state amended its constitution to create a nonpartisan group to draw up new districts; the ultimate goal is to reduce gerrymandering. Named for the salamander-shaped district drawn by Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812, gerrymandering occurs when a state legislature draws voting district lines in a manner that benefits the ruling party at the expense of the opposition. The goal is to consolidate power for the party in control, making it effectively impossible for the opposition to gain seats. Many state legislatures have engaged in this process recently, prompting grassroots movements advocating independent commissions to draw districts.
Since 2008, Florida has exhibited the political equivalent of a split personality, with a Democratic president twice winning the state even as Republicans racked up large majorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation. Among the explanations for the state’s alternating political personas: Experts say it is one of the most gerrymandered in the nation, with an array of oddly shaped political districts that — evidence now shows — often were designed to maximize partisan advantage. Now two blockbuster court cases — and a pair of constitutional amendments that paved the way for them — are earning Florida a new reputation as a state on the leading edge of efforts to rein in political gamesmanship in drawing legislative districts.
Florida: Legislature sets special session for October to redraw Florida Senate districts | Miami Herald
The Florida Legislature has set yet another special session, this time for October to redraw the Florida Senate district lines that opponents had argued violated the state constitution prohibition on gerrymandering to favor or disfavor politicians. The Legislature will meet from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, according to a joint statement put out by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner.
A federal court in North Carolina is now hearing testimony in a case that could have an impact on the rollback of voting rights across the country. At the start of this decade, North Carolina’s voting laws were a model of inclusion. The state allowed 17 days of early voting, teenagers who were approaching voting age could pre-register to vote, there was same-day registration and voters could even cast ballots outside their assigned precinct. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles was also required to contact drivers about being registered when they reported an address change. Then, three things happened. First, a Republican tide swept through the North Carolina legislature in 2010. Next, after the 2010 Census, the legislature drew a congressional district map that some have called the most gerrymandered in the country. The gerrymandering worked; most of the state’s Democratic voters were packed into a few odd, snake-like districts. Democrats won only four congressional seats in 2012, when the state’s registration and voting numbers indicated they should have won seven.
In both Virginia and Florida, legislators will meet in special sessions next month to deal with an issue they thought they’d settled years ago — redistricting. Congressional maps in both states have been ruled invalid by the courts. The reasons were different in each case, but each speaks to a trend that is keeping redistricting very much a live issue midway through the decade. Political lines have to be redrawn once every 10 years, following the census. But the fight over them never really stops.