The Florida Senate evoked comparisons to Vanna White and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ Wednesday as it held a lottery to randomly determine which districts get two- or four-year terms.
In a scene was reminiscent of a Lotto telecast, senators watched as the secretary of the Senate used green and white bingo balls, brass tumbling machines and a large map to conduct the drawing. Their goal was to remove any doubt that the district numbers selected for the next decade does not favor incumbents.
But not everyone agreed with the approach.
Storms then interrupted the drawing, her voice quivering with emotion. She accused the Senate staff of “illegal gambling,” warned they could be arrested on misdemeanor charges, and demanded an attorney general’s opinion.
But Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who conceived of the make-shift lottery, would not stop the drawing. He politely encouraged Storms to seek the attorney general’s opinion and ordered Senate staff to carry on..
“This was the most incumbent-neutral and random method that the Senate Committee on Reapportionment could devise,’’ Gaetz said when it was over. The numbers will be attached to Gaetz’s proposal and the new Senate map, which will be voted on by the full Senate on Thursday.
It was high legislative drama in response to an historic judicial ruling.
The Florida Constitution requires staggered terms for the Senate’s 40 members but, in a reapportionment year, every district must have an election, so half the districts get a two-year term and the other half gets four. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the Senate’s original numbering scheme because it gave nearly every returning incumbent a four-year term, an apparent violation of the new Fair Districts amendments which forbid lawmakers from intentionally favoring incumbents.
Legislators are back in a 15-day extraordinary session to draw the new plan after the court rejected the first Senate map for violating the new Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering rules.
After two days of tense deliberations, the committee voted 21-6 along mostly party lines to support Gaetz’s plan. Three senators have proposed amendments to the map, and Storms and Sen. Thad Altman also have proposals for a district numbering system that does not rely on brass tumblers and revolving balls.
“I don’t believe doing a ‘quick pick’ here is appropriate,” said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who argued that a system could be devised that didn’t rely on a random selection process. But Gaetz asked for alternatives and nobody offered them.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, initially chastised Gaetz for suggesting the lottery be conducted on the Senate floor.
"We don't need Vanna White,'' he said, referring to the long-time Wheel of Fortune celebrity. He suggested a "dignified drawing" be done in the privacy of the Senate secretary's office with independent monitors and recorded on video tape. "Your theory is excellent, I just suggest we adopt a system that is much more restrained."
Gaetz, however, was prepared for the floor show. After asking the Florida Lottery Department to borrow its studios, and being told that security precautions prevented it, Senate staff last week ordered the bingo-style lottery equipment from a distributor in New Jersey. Gaetz contacted Attorney General Pam Bondi and asked her to preside over the drawing on the Senate floor.
Eager to find a resolution, Senate Republican Leader Andy Gardiner of Orlando approached Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston at the side of the room. They emerged with an agreement to conduct the lottery in the committee room and let the Senate vote Thursday to the keep the numbers or support a different approach.
“We’re doing the best we can,’’ Rich said, conceding the lottery was not ideal. But after hours of internal bickering, the Senate needed to “get off the dime.”
The result is a numbering system that gives eight open seats and 12 returning incumbents, including Gaetz, the opportunity to exceed the eight-year term limit and serve as many as 10 years. Another 15 of the returning incumbents would be limited to eight total years, as would five additional open seats.
The Senate’s gamble may not be over however.
Under Gaetz’s map, the Senate adjusted the eight districts the court said violated the new Fair Districts amendments to the constitution but did so in a way that continues to violate the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the constitution. “I think that this map still indicates that it favors incumbents,’’ she said.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said the map will likely draw a federal lawsuit because he believes it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, which require the state to maximize minority voting access. He is proposing an amendment Thursday to change that by creating a fourth Hispanic district in Miami-Dade County and, in the process, divide the existing District 35 which is now held by Democrat Gwen Margolis.
But Margolis challenged him, noting that Diaz de la Portilla failed to offer his proposal when the Senate was drawing its first map months ago.
“This issue has come to light only since his brother has decided to run for my seat,’’ she said after the meeting, referring to Alex Diaz de la Portilla who has filed to run for District 35. If the amendment passes, she warned, “there will never be an Anglo senator from Dade County.”