Census data is out and redistricting has begun, but advocates warn of continued secrecy

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Republican-led legislatures in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin appear on both of their redistricting target lists. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

The process to reapportion Florida’s political lines began in earnest with Thursday’s release of population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Advocates are warning of secrecy on both sides of the aisle. Even after courts had to intervene during the 2010 redistricting cycle.

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Ellen Freidin was on the frontlines of the vicious fight to establish fair districts following the 2010 census. She’d fought four years to pass a statewide amendment mandating an end to partisan gerrymandering. That’s the process of drawing political lines to keep one party in power.

And after districts were redrawn in 2012, it was four more before she saw justice.

“It took four hard, long years of scorched earth litigation,” she said. “And in fact, at the end of the day, one of the judges in the case said that the maps had been drawn to make a mockery of the Fair Districts Amendment.”

Making a mockery

That judge was Leon County’s Terry Lewis. Florida passed the Fair Districts Amendment in 2010 becoming one of few states to outline rules prohibiting gerrymandering. Courts ultimately ruled Republican legislators and operatives destroyed communications and used backchannel manipulation to circumvent the fair district requirements.

New maps were ordered for 2016 and on.

Now the process has begun again. But Freidin and other advocates warn there hasn’t been enough transparency in a process that’s accelerated this time around.

Lawmakers have waited on the delayed release of data from the 2020 Census to start the process. The Thursday release pushes the timeline to finish redistricting by the 2022 election.

It has begun

The first step in the process is all about data. Suzanne Almeida is redistricting and representation counsel at Common Cause. The 2020 Census was fraught with controversy and its release was delayed. Almeida said the numbers will be analyzed for accuracy. State legislators and tribal leaders can appeal numbers to the Census Bureau. But Almeida said more transparency is needed to instill public confidence.

“We need people to be able to show up and make their voices heard in the redistricting process,” she said. “Regardless of what those Census numbers say.”

Freidin said trouble can come from both sides of the aisle. And she’s worried it will. The Fair Districts Coalition sent out a letter to majority and minority leadership in Florida’s House and Senate. She hasn’t heard back from anyone. Fair Districts also asked all 160 state legislators to sign a pledge that they’d adhere to the 2010 amendment. Only 7 senators and 10 house representatives, all Democrats, have signed.

“The legislature has not given us any reason to be optimistic that the fair districts amendment will be adhered to,” Freidin said.

But she’s still hopeful lawmakers will come through.

The redrawn maps released in 2016 led to more moderate and fairer representation. Like GOP State Sen. Anitere Flores who opposed all of a GOP counterpart’s 2017 gun bills. Effectively blocking them to better reflect her reshaped constituency. And there’s Val Demmings and Darren Soto. They’re two Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation who won seats after fairer districts were drawn.

If this year’s process echoes the last, there’s a chance Florida could move to an independent commission following the next Census. But Freidin hopes it won’t come to that.

“I think that remains to be seen,” she said. “Let’s see what this legislature does.”

Census Data shows dramatic shifts in many major American cities. Florida’s increased population should gain at least one new congressional seat this time around. Racial lines in the state are also shifting. The New York Times released an early analysis of the data Friday. It showed Orlando as one of six major metro areas in the country where white residents have become a minority.

State leaders have not announced redistricting committee members yet. But new maps are mandated to be drawn by the end of the 2022 legislative session, which runs from Jan. 11 to March 11.

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