What’s in a number? For incumbent Florida Senators, a lot

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During its final meeting on Jan. 11, the Senate Reapportionment Committee considered a few changes to its redistricting plan for the chamber, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

For the most part, senators and their staff suggested, the changes were meant to respond to public input on their first draft of the map, being drawn for the first time under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments approved by the voters in November 2010.

But there was also another change, one that went largely unnoticed at the time. The new Senate map would renumber the districts in a way that supporters said was fair — and in a way that would eventually serve as one of the reasons the Florida Supreme Court tossed the redistricting plan last week.

The battle over numbers stands at the odd intersection of three constitutional and legal standards: The eight-year term limits for all state elected officials, the staggered four-year terms given to state senators, and the need to re-elect each lawmaker after the once-a-decade redistricting process.

Because of the need for each legislator to stand for re-election during the year the new lines are drawn, some senators win two-year terms in a redistricting year and some win four-year terms, an effort to continue staggering the Senate terms. And the lengths of those terms are decided by the seat numbers, meaning certain changes could extend a member’s potential term.

The state constitution’s term-limits measure prohibits a member of the Senate from running for re-election eight years after his or her initial election. But if a senator has only served six years, they can run for a full, four-year term if their seat were up.

So if a senator elected in 2010 were given a seat number that would be up for re-election in 2012 and again in 2016, he or she could run for a third term. That could mean a total of a decade in office, presuming the numbers were right. (Odd-numbered seats are usually up for election in presidential years, while even-numbered seats go two years later.)

And for most incumbents, opponents of the maps contend, the numbers were right — something the Supreme Court found to also be true among the districts it looked at. In a way, Senate staff confirmed that at the January meeting, though they explained the logic differently.

John Guthrie, the staff director for the Senate, told the committee he renumbered the new districts in order to try to ensure that any member elected in 2010, whose term would essentially be truncated to two years by redistricting, would get a four-year term beginning in 2012.

“That just seemed to me to be a fairer method of making the assignments of odd and even numbers than would be a situation where you had the effect of having some senators get a two-year term before and after redistricting and other senators get a four-year term before and after redistricting,” Guthrie said.

The practical effect was also to give most members the opportunity to serve for 10 years. That, the Supreme Court ruled, ran afoul of the Fair Districts amendment’s prohibition on favoring incumbents.

“Adopting a renumbering system that significantly advantages incumbents by increasing the length of time that they may serve by two years most assuredly favors incumbents,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the 5-2 majority. “Further, purposefully manipulating the numbering of the districts in order to allow incumbents to serve in excess of eight years would also appear to frustrate the intent of the voters when the term limits amendment was adopted.”

But in his dissent, Chief Justice Charles Canady said the majority was reaching — noting that the length of the terms doesn’t actually make it easier for any member of the Senate to win re-election.

“The numbering of the Senate districts is totally unrelated to any advantage incumbent senators will obtain vis-a-vis challenger candidates,” Canady wrote.

The Senate has not clearly spelled out how it intends to change the numbering system. But at least one group who opposed the maps has an idea.

The new plan should instead number the seats so that, as much as possible, each senator elected in 2010 has a two-year term, and each senator first elected in 2008 gets a four-year term that ends in 2016, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said. Open seats should also get a four-year term.

“The goal here is to take all the seats you can and make them eight-year seats,” Smith said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

“That’s not a hard one to fix,” he added later. “It’s just not a fix that a lot of people are going to like.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.