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The Dilemma Of Florida's District 5


How could politics change if the Supreme Court outlaws partisan gerrymandering? It's being asked to do that. Karen Duffin of our Planet Money podcast reports what happened when Florida banned it.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: After Florida outlawed partisan gerrymandering in 2010, state politicians said, we want the people to draw our new electoral maps. Politicians held town halls across the state. They put software online for citizens to draw maps.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Record levels of public input.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now, that is historic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And frankly, we couldn't be more pleased.

DUFFIN: About 5,000 people showed up to town halls and submitted nearly 200 maps. And as the politicians took all of this input and prepared to release new maps, some people were keeping an eye on one particular district, District 5. It stretched from Jacksonville all the way down to Orlando.

ELLEN FREIDIN: One of the poster children for what a badly gerrymandered district looks like.

DUFFIN: That's Ellen Freidin, a lawyer who's worked on this issue. And she is right about District 5, though not all gerrymandering is the same. There is partisan gerrymandering, what Florida outlawed, and another type the courts sometimes actually mandate that has to do with race. District 5 had both.

It was gerrymandered legally because of the federal Voting Rights Act, which says you have to put enough voters of color in a district to give candidates of color a fair shot at winning. But this also helped Republicans because most black voters in Florida vote for Democrats. So packing minority voters into one district...

DAN SMITH: Would allow these districts to elect a minority. But as a result, Democrats started losing more seats.

DUFFIN: This is Dan Smith, a political science professor in Florida. When the politicians released their new maps, those maps were still partisan. District 5 was more packed than before. So Ellen, the lawyer, and the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit. And they hired Dan to analyze the maps. As they started to work on the case, they learned politicians had basically smuggled in partisanship. Republican consultants had secretly drawn maps and then gave those maps to other people to submit as, you know, regular-Joe citizens. Some of these maps had pretty interesting names.

SMITH: It was called Perfect Pieces.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) Someone needs to help them name these...

SMITH: Exactly.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) Right?

SMITH: Maybe they should come up with Imperfect Pieces next time. But...

DUFFIN: Or, like, We're Totally Not Rigging The Process Version 4.

This Perfect Pieces map showed that the legislature had packed more voters of color into District 5 than it actually needed in order to elect a minority candidate - and likely on purpose. This level of packing put District 5 at a legal threshold that made it protected by the Voting Rights Act, which would make District 5 much harder to unpack.

SMITH: It's perversely using the Voting Rights Act for ulterior motives.

DUFFIN: They took this evidence to trial. And the judge ordered many of the maps be redrawn. The new, new maps unpacked District 5. And three new candidates of color were elected. And politicians, now in more competitive districts, started to have more centrist positions on issues like guns and health care.

If the Supreme Court does outlaw partisan gerrymandering, states beyond Florida will have to wrestle with the dilemma of District 5. As long as race and political affiliation stay as tangled as they are in this country, it will be very hard to figure out how to draw these lines.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Duffin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOTS' "TURKISH VOODOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Duffin (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in March 2018.