An Unusual Course of Action in Sarasota County

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY NOV 23, 2019

Sarasota County’s controversial pursuit of off-year redistricting seems destined for court. For that reason, an exchange between County Commissioner Nancy Detert and consultant Kurt Spitzer stood out.

Spitzer drafted Sarasota’s new district map into “legally defensible” form and has drawn county or city district maps probably 15 times.

“It’s probably not fair to ask how many went to court,” Detert asked, “because it’s probably more fair to ask, anybody that redistricts, do they ever not go to court?”

His answer surely surprised her, as Spitzer explained only one time had he created a map that drew a court challenge. That case involved a dispute on whether federal prisoners should impact district boundaries. “It was not over data or lines or that sort of thing,” he said. “It was over a separate issue everybody understood.”

"So you would say the work you have done in the past has a good track record of holding up on a legal basis?” she asked.

“Well," he said, "we’ve not been challenged.”

The commissioner pivoted to suggesting a lack of legal challenge meant Spitzer’s redistricting procedures were beyond reproach. But that ignores the problem people actually have with Sarasota County redrawing its lines in the year 2019 in a way that disenfranchises a minority community.

In so many ways, hearing commissioners justify tossing lines before the U.S. Census felt like witnessing the creation of court evidence in live time. Officials explained this specifically was a response to a voter initiative for single-member districts. They flat out rejected a map originated by Spitzer despite his proposals better balancing district populations. When pressed on whether the map ultimately approved was truly a citizen submission from a GOP operative, Spitzer made clear it was absolutely based on that outside proposal.

But nothing stuck with me like the Detert-Spitzer exchange on court challenges.

One could forgive Detert her confusion. In fact, this is the third redistricting she’s been involved with, and all seemed destined early for court. In fact, the drawing of her old state Senate district became crucial to judges tossing a map lawmakers drafted after the 2010 Census. But that’s a cheap shot; statewide maps impacting high-stakes Congressional and state Legislative races truly seem destined for court challenges no matter what.

The more important part to me was actually Spitzer’s record of staying out of court—as opposed to winning. It points out local redistricting efforts rarely generate the same controversy as the county’s decision to toss its lines one year before the U.S. government conducts a Census.

There’s always politics in redistricting. Commissioner Alan Maio has brought up (ad nauseum) how folks speculated in 2011 a friendly district was drawn for him. He swears that never happened, for what it’s worth. But it’s important to remember it doesn’t much matter. County commissioners have tremendous leeway in redistricting. Indeed, that power may lead to a court victory here.

But what’s abnormal now isn’t truly the lines. It’s the timing and malice. This redistricting strips people of the right to vote rather than just impacting a handful of prospective candidates. If commissioners redistrict again in 2021, which seems inevitable, they will likely create a class of thousands of citizens denied the right to vote for six years.

It’s why UF officials said not to redistrict unless necessary. It’s why civil rights seem a real concern despite Sarasota having no majority-minority districts. And it’s why chambers filled to the brim with citizens angry over a map.

Spitzer has no history defending this type of malfeasance. He’s never done it before. Neither has Sarasota County. The actions offend common sense and increase distrust of government. While trying to argue every map has its detractors, Detert actually exposed how unusual a course Sarasota has decided to take.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

 

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