Data sleuths decoded Florida’s redistricting conspiracy
Mary Ellen KlasMary Ellen Klas, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
Saturday, September 5, 2015 10:00am
TALLAHASSEE — 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.
The first place the challengers looked for clues was in the House’s batch of seven proposed congressional maps in November 2011.
Daniel Smith, an elections expert and University of Florida political science professor, was among the experts hired by the League of Women voters in 2012 to analyze the redistricting maps drawn by the Legislature for evidence that the process had been used to favor incumbents or political parties.
Moonlighting and working from home, Smith examined what made the House’s drafts different, looking for shifts that would tilt the 27 available congressional seats more Republican.
“The mapmakers in Tallahassee — either the state legislative staff or Republican operatives — were literally going down to the census block level and figuring out what the performance of a district was by moving people in or out of key districts,” he said. “Each map exposed the decisions by leadership.”
He found that to help U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Haven, the maps moved Democrats out of his district and into Democrat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s sprawling north-south district.
“Dan Webster’s residence was actually in Corrine Brown’s district but that was because there were so many Democrats in that census block and precinct that his house came with it,” Smith said. “The final map tipped the minority voters in Brown’s district for the first time over 50 percent plus.”
But the data showed that mapmakers went beyond saturating Brown’s district with black voters. “They also sought other Democratic-performing white census blocks to pack into that district,” he said. “It made sure those Democrats were not in the adjacent competitive district.”
As Smith compared 400,000 census blocks on each of nearly 100 maps, he found “a unique aggregation of census blocks” that didn’t exist in the 2002 congressional map used by lawmakers as their baseline. Yet these pieces existed “across different maps — from maps drawn prior to any public map, all the way to the final adopted map,” he said.
One map, titled “Perfect Pieces” by Reichelderfer, “contained the fundamental structure for subsequent maps introduced by the Florida House,” Smith wrote in his analysis.
Legislative lawyers tried to block Smith’s report from being entered into evidence at trial, and the plaintiffs never called Smith as a witness. But Smith said the conclusions were unavoidable: The similarity between Reichelderfer’s maps and the ones enacted by legislators “can’t be a coincidence. There has to be some grander coordination going on.”
Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said when he invalidated the congressional map in 2014 that the operatives “might have successfully concealed their scheme and their actions from the public had it not been for the (challengers’) determined efforts to uncover it in this case.”
For King, the head of a six-member law firm who had never before handled a redistricting lawsuit, the case was like “piecing together a puzzle.”
“It’s just like any other case except you’ve got maps,” King said. “The maps tell a story and you’ve got to interpret them.”
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.