Florida Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis has stricken down the congressional map favoring Republicans in Florida. Why this could reverberate for a decade– and threaten Republicans in time for the 2014 midterms.
After securing thousands of subpoenaed documents concerning the IRS, Benghazi, and any development that could at least theoretically make the White House look bad, Republicans in Congress are still looking for the smoking gun that could allow them to romp to victory in November.
Meanwhile, a judge in Florida has just uncovered a smoking gun that could change the tide of the 2014 midterms. But it’s Democrats rather than Republicans who stand to reap the electoral rewards from his 41-page verdict.
At issue in the lawsuit was the congressional map drawn up by the Republican-controlled Florida legislature in 2012. In a tone that sometimes bordered on scathing, Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis denounced the congressional map as a willful violation of state law, ruling that it was enacted with the deliberate goal of favoring Republican congressional candidates.
In particular, Lewis found that various Republican consultants who took the stand to protest their innocence “did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process” to help secure for their party a lopsided advantage in the congressional delegation.
Of course, it’s nothing new that Republicans have won the lion’s share of Florida’s congressional seats. As recently as 2006, Republicans held 18 out of 25 House seats in Florida. The gap has narrowed in recent years, but with David Jolly’s recent victory in the March special election, Florida now sends ten more Republicans than Democrats to Congress, despite being a swing state that was won twice by Barack Obama.
But things were supposed to be different in the last election cycle. One of the few bright spots in the 2010 election for Democrats was the passage of Amendment 8, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit any party from deliberately drawing a congressional map that aggressively favored one party over the other. This amendment garnered 61% of the vote—clearing the state’s 60% threshold to become law– and was seen as ending the days where Republicans drew up one-party rule in Tallahassee.
But Republicans managed to get around the rule in time for the 2012 elections, arguing with straight faces that the 17-10 congressional split that resulted from their redrawing of the map was a chance occurrence of geography and legislator’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act, rather than a defiant Republican gerrymander. But the facts that came to light in Judge Lewis’ courtroom suggest otherwise.
One by one, GOP officials were summoned to the courtroom by the plaintiffs to testify that any seeming collaboration they had with the legislature in drawing GOP-friendly maps was coincidental. Frank Terraferma, a Republican consultant paid $10,000 a month by the Republican Party of Florida, testified that he didn’t know that copies of congressional maps that he created showed up at redistricting conferences with state lawmakers. He hadn’t drawn up those maps for lawmakers to consider—even though seven districts that ended up in the official district map fit districts he had designed to a T.
The Republican operative acknowledged that he had created a majority-GOP map using sophisticated redistricting software, but denied he had proposed it or even shown it to the legislature. “It’s fun, to be honest,” he replied when pressed about why he made the maps at all. But he could not explain how a college student from Florida State University was able to submit an identical map on the very last day allotted for submissions to the legislature.
And there’s more evidence that, while circumstantial, continued to pile up until it became impossible to ignore. In the case’s discovery stage, it became apparent that legislators and political operatives had destroyed all of their correspondence with respect to redistricting—a move that was perfectly legal, but puzzling. Why bother?
The answer was clear to Judge Lewis: the strategists deleted the emails because they reflected just how cravenly partisan the redistricting process was. He particularly objected to the Republican strategy of relocating majority-black precincts into District 5, held by Democratic Representative Corinne Brown.
The reshuffling of black voters who lean overwhelmingly Democratic into Brown’s district made her politically invulnerable and allowed her to win reelection in 2012 with more than 70 percent of the vote. And it also had the effect of shoring up the districts of neighboring Republican representatives, who lost some Democratic voters in the trade-off.
And that’s the art of gerrymandering. Cram all of the other party’s voters into just a few districts, and let them win those few districts with at least three quarters of the vote. Meanwhile, make sure your districts are split something like 55/45 in your favor. You’ll win a handful more seats than the other side, and your incumbents should be safe in any political environment with that sort of partisan balance.
The term “gerrymandering” got its nickname in the 1960s, supposedly when one state legislator was looking at a proposed district drawn up by a colleague and remarked in disbelief, “It looks like a salamander, Gerry!” Ironically, the district that Corinne Brown finds herself presiding over does look reptilian, almost snakelike. Long, thin, and sprawling, it stretches from the suburbs of Orlando all the way to Jacksonville. It curves and zigzags every which way, and in some areas is no wider than the highway cars use to pass through it. Judge Lewis has ordered the district to be redrawn, in addition to the neighboring District 10, occupied by Republican Representative Dan Webster.
The court-ordered redrawing of these districts is a stunning opportunity for Democrats. As Congresswoman Brown’s district is reshuffled, it will bleed Democratic voters, making her liberal district more competitive but also threatening the surrounding Republican congressmen whose districts will have to absorb some of Brown’s former constituents. Dan Webster himself has to be feeling anxious; he only won his district with 52 percent of the vote. Trading even a small percentage of his constituents for Brown’s could be fatal to him; all it would take would be for one liberal city to fall his way.
The redistricting software, the political payoffs, and the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes may be convoluted, but the calculus of this verdict’s impact on the battle for Congress is simple. The map can’t get any worse for Democrats, Republicans already own far more districts than they have any business controlling in a swing state, and any reshuffling in the deck can only benefit that party that got a raw deal in the first place. That would be the Democratic Party, and it’s easy to see them picking up Webster’s seat to turn the delegation from 10-17 in the GOP’s favor to a more reasonable 11-16… or maybe something even more favorable.
The verdict is sure to be appealed, but the chances of the Florida Supreme Court upholding Lewis’ ruling are very good; the Court already has shown a preference for reining in the GOP legislature and some of the more extreme measures favored by Republican Governor Rick Scott. With November around the corner, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court can act quickly enough to overturn the Republican gerrymander once and for all. But once again, recent history is encouraging; during the 2000 election fiasco with much higher stakes but much less time to act, the Court lost no time in ordering the recounting of ballots in southern Florida.
But even if these district lines stand for November, the days of the Republican gerrymander in Florida are numbered. It means that by 2016 at the latest there will be at least one more competitive district for Democrats to go all in to win, and possibly several. And in the campaign to wrest the Speaker’s gavel from John Boehner, that’s bombshell news.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.