Interactive map of Florida's current congressional districts
Late last week, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the congressional redistricting plan the Florida legislature enacted in 2012 unconstitutionally violated the state's new Fair Districts amendments. (The full decision is here.) Lewis found that lawmakers drew the map with the intent of impermissibly advancing the interests of the Republican Party, improperly protecting certain incumbents and yielding districts that were not geometrically compact enough. However, due to the appeals process, a revised map likely won't be in place until the 2016 elections.

While many Democratic observers lauded the decision, it remains to be seen how big a victory plaintiffs won won. Though Lewis specifically ruled the 5th and 10th Districts were unconstitutional, only tiny segments were deemed outright violations of the Fair Districts amendments, and remedies for those segments could very well have a negligible partisan impact.

And even if the 5th District as a whole has to be redrawn significantly, Republicans might still only lose a single seat. The ruling also could have been a lot worse for the GOP, as aspects of the map in other parts of the state that were clearly designed to give Republicans a partisan advantage were nevertheless upheld.

Previously, I wrote about what an entirely non-partisan congressional map might have looked like, but there's no chance of seeing something like that map implemented given the very limited scope of last week's ruling. So what does this decision mean for the current map? Below the fold, I'll take a look at the districts that were the main subject of the litigation and what a possible new map might look like based on Judge Lewis' opinion.

In 2010, Florida voters amended the state constitution and made big changes to how redistricting was supposed to be conducted:

Section 20. Standards for establishing congressional district boundaries

In establishing Congressional district boundaries:

(1) No apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent; and districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice; and districts shall consist of contiguous territory.

(2) Unless compliance with the standards in this subsection conflicts with the standards in subsection (1) or with federal law, districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.

(3) The order in which the standards within sub-sections (1) and (2) of this section are set forth shall not be read to establish any priority of one standard over the other within that subsection.

Relying on this new constitutional language, plaintiffs (including the League of Women Voters) sued over the map enacted by the legislature following the 2010 census, with four regions being the focus of the lawsuit.

First and foremost was a challenge to the 5th District, which snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando, which plaintiffs attacked as a partisan gerrymander whose purpose was to remove Democrats from the neighboring 7th and 10th Districts, and whose elongated shape was not required to protect minority voting rights under the Voting Rights Act.

The plaintiffs also challenged the 13th and 14th Districts in the Tampa Bay area, where the 14th uses water contiguity to carve heavily black (and Democratic) St. Petersburg out of Pinellas County and the rest of the 13th. Plaintiffs argued that this configuration violated compactness standards and unnecessarily divided cities and counties. They also challenged the 21st and 22nd Districts in southeast Florida for the same reasons, along with the set of the 25th, 26th, and 27th Districts in the southern tip of the state.

Judge Lewis struck down the 5th and 10th Districts, ruling that the 5th was not required under the VRA, but he did not conclusively say whether it was required under the Fair Districts amendment's Section 1 to avoid retrogression and dilution of existing minority voting strength. He only explicitly ruled that the VRA alone could not require such district and that it would have to change. As for specifics, Lewis said that a small finger into Seminole County was illegal but offered no opinion on the broader concept of a Jacksonville-to-Orlando district. Regarding the 10th, Lewis struck down a similarly finger-like appendage that reaches into downtown Orlando.

The ruling upheld the district lines for the remaining districts in large part because Lewis found plaintiffs did not prove partisan intent, and because their alternative maps were themselves insufficiently compact enough to be superior. Here, the judge effectively prioritized geometric compactness over avoiding city and county splits, because the amendment's admonition regarding the latter says splits must only be eschewed "where feasible"—even though section three of the amendment specifically says that none of the criteria for line-drawing should be given precedence over any other.

In a worst-case scenario, this ruling could give Republicans a shot at everything they could have realistically hoped for short of dismissal of the case. First, by potentially finding a retrogression standard to apply to the 5th District even though it's not required by the VRA, the district would still be forced to stretch from Jacksonville and Orlando, otherwise it would have an insufficient black voting-age population (VAP).

Although the 5th could no longer contain a finger into Seminole County, and the 10th could no longer hook around the 5th into Orlando, necessary changes could be made with only a limited political impact. Lewis acknowledged this, and you can see what such minimal changes would look like here:

 photo Orlandoleastchange_zps1c252a43.png

The 7th now takes in all of Seminole County and loses a handful of precincts in Orange County to the 5th. The 10th loses its hook into Orlando to the 9th and in exchange takes in the rest of Polk County from that district. The 5th's black VAP drops to roughly 46 percent from 50 percent and the district remains solidly Democratic, while the 9th sees its Hispanic VAP and Democratic performance drop slightly.

In terms of 2008 partisan performance, however, the 7th only sees McCain's 1-point win turn into a 1-point loss, while the 10th sees his margin shrink from five to three points over Obama. These small shifts likely aren't enough to seriously impact future races for those districts.

However, while not explicitly stated, it's possible that this ruling is indeed designed to preclude a Jacksonville-to-Orlando district. In that case, there would be two main options to remedy the 5th, neither of which would allow the district to remain close to the 43.6 percent black VAP level that Judge Lewis deems necessary to prevent the white majority from voting as a bloc to prevent minority voters from selecting the candidate of their choice.

The first alternative is to have the 5th recede from Orlando yet still span from Jacksonville to Gainesville, giving it a black VAP of about 34 percent. This district would be safely Democratic and the primary electorate would likely be close to majority black. The other option is for a 5th District only in Jacksonville with a black VAP in the low 30s and an Obama margin of just single digits. Republicans would prefer the first option since it allows the 5th to still pack in Democrats so that neighboring districts would remain red. They might draw something like this:

 photo Jax-Gainesvillevotesink10th_zpsb08e5c20.png

Without the 5th soaking up Democrats in Orlando, Republicans face a problem with the 6th, 7th, and 10th districts. Here I've thrown 10th District GOP Rep. Danile Webster to the wolves: He gets a safe Democratic district Obama carried by 17 in 2008 (which is roughly a quarter black by VAP). That enables Republicans to make sure that the other two districts both voted for McCain, by 4 points in the 6th and just narrowly in the 7th.

Really, though, there are many different ways Republicans could draw the map as this similar post by Matthew Isbell shows. If Republicans are smart, they would concede Webster's seat and give Democrats a solid pickup in Orlando, but limit their losses elsewhere.

The main reason this ruling is actually not terrible for Republicans is that it upholds the entire rest of the map despite obvious attempts to maximize their partisan advantage, several ugly-looking districts, and avoidable county and city splits. In the Tampa area in particular, there's no legitimate reason for St. Petersburg to be in the 14th except that it turns the 13th from a district Obama obama won by 10 points over Mitt Romney to one he carried by just a single point. You can see the obvious carve-out here; below I present a much more compact alternative:

 photo Tampa_zpseb943006.png

This plan reduces unnecessary city and county splits while improving compactness in the 14th. The plaintiff's alternatives unfortimately made the districts adjacent to the 14th less compact, which was one reason Lewis upheld the existing lines. However, it's unquestionably possible, as the map above demonstrates, to reunite Pinellas County in the 13th and to still make the surrounding seats just as compact if not more so than the legislature's map.

Elsewhere in the state, Lewis ruled that the 20th was required to be majority black; even though there are questions as to whether the VRA actually demands this, Lewis did not address the matter. However, because the district must be majority black to avoid retrogression, the plaintiff's concerns over the compactness of the neighboring 21st and 22nd were essentially negated by minority voting rights concerns in the 20th.

Finally in the 25th, 26th, and 27th, the key issue as I see it is how the 25th spans from strongly Democratic Miami to solidly Republican Naples for no reason other than partisanship. However, the lawsuit did not address this factor. The plaintiffs' alternative map kept this configuration and instead focused unsuccessfully on compactness issues within Miami-Dade County.

To summarize, the changes that might result based solely on this decision could potentially have a minimal partisan impact since those changes to the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 10th can all be accomplished with only a minimal two-point Democratic shift in margin in the Republican-held 7th and 10th, with both districts remaining Romney seats.  However, if retrogression of minority voter rights under the VRA does not apply, and the broader concept of a Jacksonville to Orlando district is voided, then Democrats stand a very good chance at picking up Dan Webster's seat, though possibly nothing else. A more favorable scenario in central Florida could see Democrats take the 10th and wind up with the 6th and 7th very evenly divided in terms of partisanship.

The silver lining to this ruling, however, is that Judge Lewis has not explicitly decided whether the legislature should be given another shot at fixing its errors, and he may choose to redraw the map himself. Given his anger at how Republican consultants perverted the redistricting process, he may be inclined to make broader changes than lawmakers would.

Democrats should also hope that the inevitable appeal to the state Supreme Court, where the liberal bloc has a five to two majority, finds wider constitutional violations and offers a different interpretation of the unnecessary city/county splits clause. But based on this ruling Democrats really only stand to gain one district and could even see no changes in a worst-case scenario.

Tue Jul 15, 2014 at  1:10 PM PT (David Nir): In a sign that Republicans were indeed not too perturbed by this ruling, the legislature announced Tuesday it would not appeal.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Mon Jul 14, 2014 at 07:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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