By protecting minority districts, proposed new congressional maps for Florida help Republicans maintain their hold on the state's U.S. House delegation, even as Democrats have an edge in party registration.
It wasn't what Democratic supporters of the 2010 Fair Districts amendments envisioned, but redistricting has pivoted primarily on the legal requirement that preserves House seats held by minorities.
Reps. Corrine Brown and Alcee Hastings, both African-American Democrats, retained their high percentage of black constituents under the principle of "retrogression" -- meaning their share of minority population cannot be reduced by redistricting.
Because African-American voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, the party's vote is artificially concentrated inside existing minority districts, and any newly designated ones. That's good news for Brown, Hastings and a prospective Latino lawmaker in a new Central Florida district, but it effectively "bleaches" neighboring districts of minority and Democratic votes.
The net outcome is a domino effect -- ensuring that a larger number of districts skew toward Republicans, even though Democrats have a 544,389 (12 percent) edge in party registration statewide.
"We are permanently creating gerrymandered districts because of Fair Districts" and retrogression, says Henry Kelley, who has closely followed the redistricting process and submitted proposed maps of his own.
The current 25-member U.S. House delegation -- split 19-6 Republican -- will grow by two next year, due to Florida's population gains in the past decade.
Based on party registration, 18 of the newly designed congressional districts appear to be solidly Republican, while seven districts are Democratic. Two districts lean Democratic, rounding out the total of 27 seats.
Sunshine State News rated the likely outcomes using a 40 percent party registration threshold. The party holding that share or more in a given district can be expected to win that seat. The two "leaning Democratic" districts barely topped that benchmark, at 40.3 percent and 41.67 percent.
The 41.67 percent Democratic district is the newly designated CD 27, which encompasses a heavily Hispanic area around Orlando. By concentrating the Hispanic/Democratic vote to create this "Latino district," the gerrymandering process effectively made the surrounding districts safer for Republicans.
Predictably, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith assailed the new maps drawn by the GOP-controlled state Senate. Republican Party officials accused Smith of rank hypocrisy, noting that he "helped create a map that increased the number of Democrat voters in his own district" when he was a state senator from Gainesville.
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist, calls the two new congressional districts "a wash," noting that the Latino/Democratic CD 27 will be offset by the creation of CD 26 centered in The Villages, a conservative retirement enclave that votes overwhelmingly Republican.
Schale would not comment on whether the new congressional maps meet the constitutional requirements set by Fair Districts, but Kelley believes they do.
"The maps comply with the letter of the law," said Kelley, leader of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party. "They've done a masterful job," he said of the legislative mapmakers.
Not all Republicans are doing cartwheels over the alignments, however.
Four GOP congressmen -- Steve Southerland, David Rivera, Allen West and Tom Rooney -- each would inherit districts containing higher percentages of Democratic voters.
Indeed, Southerland's CD 2 would flip to a Democratic majority of 54.9 percent as it takes in all of Tallahassee.
One political insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that West's new CD 22 district shapes up as so unfriendly to the GOP that the congressman ought to consider jumping into the crowded field for U.S. Senate.
In Southwest Florida, Republicans grumbled that they should have received one of the two new congressional seats.
"Are they trying to give Congress back to the Democrats?" groused one Charlotte County resident who declined to be identified.
Meanwhile, the Senate's mapmakers awarded Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a district configuration that's arguably even more favorable to her re-election prospects. In addition to representing Florida's 20th Congressional District in South Florida, the hyper-partisan Wasserman Schultz chairs the Democratic National Committee.
Overall, the proposed districts are generally more compact and respectful of existing political boundaries, as called for by Fair Districts and passed by voters last year.
Rooney's CD 16, for example, would no longer stretch across the South Florida peninsula, taking bits and pieces of several counties. The new version is confined to the East Coast counties of northern Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and eastern Okeechobee.
Rooney's spokesman declined to comment, but West's chief of staff, Jonathan Blyth, cautioned that there are still miles to go before any lines can be etched in stone.
"No one has seen the House version yet," said Blyth, who then laid out a lengthy itinerary for a final redistricting plan.
"They have to pass each house, then you have to conference it, then you have to vote it through again. Then it goes to the governor, then to the Department of Justice," Blyth said.
Beyond that, Blyth and others believe that court challenges also are possible, even likely.
"We're like in the very first inning of a very long and complex baseball game," he said, adding that West is keeping his eye on the ball in Congress while legislators jockey in Tallahassee.
Randy Nielsen, a GOP consultant, predicted that congressional maps drawn by the Florida House will vary from those offered by the Senate. The House alternative could be released by the end of the week.
"There will be some trading back and forth," said Nielsen, who praised the redistricting exercise as "the most public, most open process this state has ever had."
Dierdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, which has been critical of the extended timeline for redistricting, said, "This is just the first step in a multistep process. We know that the voters are looking for a new approach, where we aren't drawing lines the same old way to benefit incumbents."
"We're urging citizens to pay close attention and to stay involved and stay vocal in the process," Macnab said.
Reach Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.