There was an unusual scene at Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee this week. To comply with a court order, legislative staffers used a computer program to randomly assign new numbers to Florida's 40 state Senate districts.
It's the latest in a series of moves that have reshaped politics in the Sunshine State. The political ground shifted recently when the courts approved new maps for congressional districts and the state Senate. The maps are the result of laws that aim to eliminate gerrymandering: drawing districts to benefit one political party or another.
It is a time-honored political practice, named after 19th century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. In recent years, Florida is one of the states where it has been most rampant.
But now, six years after voters approved Constitutional amendments aimed at curbing gerrymandering, the courts say maps for Florida's congressional and state Senate seats at last comply with the law.
"Florida was among the most effective gerrymanders for Republicans in the entire United States," said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida. Although Florida is a swing state, one that Barack Obama won twice and with more registered Democrats than Republicans, Republicans control the reins of power. Twenty of the state's 27 members of Congress are Republican. The GOP holds 26 of the 40 seats in the state Senate.
Under the new maps, McDonald said those numbers are now likely to change slightly in Democrats' favor. "Expectations are that Democrats will probably win up to two, maybe three seats out of Congress above where they are currently at, and they may win maybe three or four more seats out of the [Florida] Senate."
A lot of course depends on the candidates and the campaigns they run. After seeing the new map for his district, Republican Congressman David Jolly announced he won't seek re-election. Instead he's running for the U.S. Senate. Among the contenders in the now Democratic-leaning district is former Gov. Charlie Crist. Another Republican faced with a hard choice is Daniel Webster, the Orlando-area congressman who gained attention when he ran for House speaker. His district has also been redrawn Democratic.
The new maps were approved only after protracted legal battles and Republican opposition. Challenges are still pending. While the legal cases dragged on, two elections were held using maps that in court Republicans admitted had been drawn improperly.
That's not how it should work, said League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman. Her organization was one of the plaintiffs in the court cases. "What has been occurring in Florida has been elected officials choosing their voters, drawing districts, choosing their voters," she said, "instead of voters choosing their elected officials, which is the way it's supposed to work in our democracy."
Every 10 years, after the census, all states are required to draw new congressional and legislative district maps. Under the law now in Florida, maps must be drawn without regard to politics. But the legislature controls the process.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican and political veteran says you can't take politics out of redistricting. Of the new law and the court ruling, he said, "It just shifted the playing field from Republican politics to Democrat politics in my opinion. And I've been involved in Florida politics over 40 years, so I've seen a lot of this."
Because it is a presidential election year, when voter turnout is highest, Democrats think the new maps will help them unseat some Republican incumbents both in Congress and in the state legislature. But Latvala said Democrats who think they may regain a majority in Florida's Senate are wrong. "I think a one or at the most a two seat pickup, I think that's a possibility." Latvala said. "But that's not going to change control of Florida's Senate."
Other states besides Florida are also taking a look at how they conduct the politically-charged once-every-decade redistricting process. North Dakota and possibly Illinois will have redistricting reform on the ballot in November. It's also being discussed in Ohio, New Jersey, Georgia and other states.