The Florida House of Representatives has launched its public redistricting website, and lawmakers are getting to work drawing congressional boundaries that comply (lawsuits notwithstanding) with two new constitutional amendments intended to require geographically compact districts that don’t favor or disfavor political parties, racial groups or incumbents.
Some legislative leaders — including Senate President Mike Haridopolos — have contended that the amendments create a difficult standard to meet: Just what is a “Fair District”?
One measure of a district’s fairness is its compactness, and the software firm Azavea has a website that measures it by four commonly used standards.
Two of the measures test how far a district is spread from its center: Is it drawn as tightly as possible, or does it wind its way from Jacksonville to Orlando? The other two test the smoothness of a district’s boundaries: Is it a neat square, or a contorted blob with amoeba-like appendages jutting out to grab convenient blocks of voters?
The site offers comparisons of individual districts and states as a whole. Low scores may indicate gerrymandering. Of the 43 states with multiple congressional representatives, Florida ranks third in the test of districts’ spread, and 10th and seventh on the two scales measuring smoothness.
Some of Florida’s lowest-scoring districts include the 22nd, currently represented by Allen West, R-Fort Lauderdale. A jagged “swing” district carved along the South Florida coast, it ranks among the five lowest scores.
Florida’s 3rd district, represented by Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, which snakes from Orlando to Jacksonville and touches Gainesville along the way, ranks eighth by one measure of its spread, and just outside the top 10 on the other three measures.
The 18th district, represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, scores poorly by one of the measures, but geography probably plays a role: Her district includes the Florida Keys, which stretch its boundaries away from the center of an otherwise compact district.
Azavea points out on the site’s FAQ that compactness is not a perfect measure of fairness. Drawing perfectly compact districts could benefit the majority party or exclude minorities from representation (a key contention in Brown’s lawsuit challenging the Fair Districts amendments):
A number of scholars have suggested that compactness measures are best used not as absolute standards against which a single district’s shape is judged, but rather as a way to assess the relative merits of various proposed plans. Above all, compactness is most meaningful within the framework of an institutional redistricting process.