Read Hundreds of Secret Emails Showing GOP Consultants' Plot To Skew Florida Districts

Four years ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment with a simple mandate: Legislators had to stop drawing absurd state congressional districts that virtually ensured the GOP would dominate in Tallahassee forever. Instead, voters wanted fair districts -- boundaries that would create actual competitive races instead of Democrat- or Republican-packed strongholds.

Within weeks, GOP strategists went to work on an equally simple mission: how to get around the new law. And a newly released batch of hundreds of emails from one Gainesville consultant lays bare just how blatantly they tried to game the system.

See also: Florida GOP "Made a Mockery" of Fair Redistricting Amendments, Judge Rules

The emails are from the consulting firm Data Targeting, led by Republican power broker Pat Bainter. He had fought hard against releasing the messages in an ongoing lawsuit over the law, challenging it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Judge Clarence Thomas on Friday denied that final appeal, and the emails -- more than 500 pages of them -- were released this weekend.

They show Bainter's team painstakingly working to craft new boundaries before the Republican-led Florida Legislature created new districts in 2011. The emails also make it clear his group knew it was skirting the edge of the law by playing such a secret, active role in the process just after voters had approved a constitutional amendment supposedly putting a stop to such tomfoolery.

Here's one money quote, via Marc Caputo at the Miami Herald:

"Want to echo Pat's reminder about being incredibly careful and deliberative here, especially when working with people who are organizing other folks," one of Bainter's associates wrote in November 2011. "Must be very smart in how we prep every single person we talk to about all of these. If you can think of a more secure and failsafe way to engage our people, please do it... Pat and I will probably sound almost paranoid on this over the next week, but it will be so much more worthwhile to be cautious."

The group's plan, as outlined in the emails, was to use voter data to carefully craft Republican-packed districts -- exactly the type of thing forbidden under the new law -- and then to have random "citizens" submit those maps during the review process.

Among the plans outlined in the new documents were one to pack more black voters into Sen. Dwight Bullard's Miami district. "We can create some long tentacles to reach out and grab enough black population to hit 50+%," a Data Targeting consultant wrote in one email.

Such moves have created Florida's political inertia. By packing Democratic-leaning minority voters into one district (often with absurd-looking, octopus-esque districts), the GOP has created enough other Republican-safe districts that Dems have no shot at ever reclaiming a majority in Tally.

The Herald notes a caveat to the new evidence: The emails and the plans sketched out don't match exactly what the legislators later passed, so there's no smoking gun proving that Data Targeting's plans were successful.

Bainter, meanwhile, says the release has hurt his First Amendment rights, calling the challenge to the law "an inquisition hell bent on winning through legal threat."

But the fact that his group so openly plotted to skirt the new amendment is a boon to left-leaning groups with an ongoing lawsuit.

A state judge already forced the GOP to redraw seven districts earlier this summer after ruling they had "made a mockery" of the new amendment. But a coalition of voting-rights groups has appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, asking them to invalidate the entire map.

They filed a new brief Friday claiming the new emails prove the legislature ignored voters' demands.

Read all the emails for yourself via the Scripps-Tribune Capital Bureau:


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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink