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Alan Fein

Alan Fein

Posted: November 8, 2010 02:01 PM

Redistricting Reform in Florida

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Here in Florida, there was an important story of reform -- real, perhaps revolutionary election reform -- that was lost in Tuesday's carnage. Florida Constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, designed to limit the power of legislators to design their districts to guarantee their reelection, were approved by over 62 percent of Florida voters. Reforms like Amendments 5 and 6 are have been pushed by good government advocates in both parties, have been instituted in handful of other states, and are needed everywhere.

The abuse the reforms have addressed is gerrymandering. In Florida, it has been regular practice by both parties for generations. Over the last few years, however, gerrymandering has literally become a science. Computer programming allows the party in power to draw district lines block-by-block, carving voters of a particular persuasion in or out of district. Ultimately, legislators were picking their voters rather than voters picking their legislators.

The fruits of the labors of gerrymandering are no clearer than they are in Florida. Florida actually has more registered Democrats than Republicans. In most statewide races over the last few years, including Tuesday's governor's race, the margins of victory are very slim. You may remember our close presidential election a few years back, and, of course, Floridians supported Barack Obama. Yet, at the end of the Tuesday, 20 out of 25 Florida congressional seats were in Republican hands. Republicans have had similar control in the Florida House and Senate.

How can this be? The Republican legislators who draw the lines pack as many Democrats in to as few districts as possible. The Democrats who did win garnered 86, 79, 62, 62, and 61 percent of the vote in their districts, respectively. In the districts around the small number of Democratic bastions, Republicans have the clear advantage. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger tried to get his Democratic legislature to address the mirror-image problem, to no avail.

A classic example of the system that has been created is that of Representative Mario Diaz-Balart. Diaz-Balart had been laboring for years in the Florida legislature, and made it known in 2000 that he would retain his seat for one more term, so he could chair the legislative committee that would draw the lines after the next census. Diaz-Balart's goal, which he successfully achieved, was to create his own seat in the United States Congress.

The district Diaz-Balart created for himself in 2000 is ridiculous. It begins in Miami's heavily Republican western suburbs, carves out all African-American voters nearby, then stretches across the Everglades, where no one lives, to include heavily Republican bastions in Southwest Florida.

Other examples abound. State Senate District 19 has a doughnut hole in the center which isolates residents and puts them in another district. Congressional District 11 is "contiguous" only by including a causeway over Tampa Bay, and includes three separate counties. And the small Florida city of Winter Park is carved up among four separate Congressional districts.

This nonsense is repeated throughout the country, and its impact on the level of our discourse is profound. Because so many districts are rigged ahead of time, the real battle for a district often occurs in lightly-attended primaries, where candidates on a party's fringe are more likely to be successful, and much less likely to seek compromise or moderation once elected.

In Florida, at least, the voters had enough of legislators choosing their voters rather than allowing voters to choose who they want to elect. The amendments passed Tuesday prohibit drawing district lines to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party; they require districts to be compact and to utilize existing political and geographical boundaries, while at the same time protecting minority voting rights.

Of course, the legislators who are now constricted by the Florida Constitution will not simply roll over. Congressman Diaz-Balart did not even wait until dawn on Wednesday to file an action in Miami's federal court challenging the amendments, even though a similar action was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court. The lawsuit will be disposed of, and the Florida legislature will ultimately be dispatched to reluctantly carry out the new provisions of Florida's constitution.

Now, it's time for this effort to be replicated around the country. In the meantime, we live in a democracy in which 80 percent of its voters have utter disregard for their legislators, yet the lion's share of these people are almost automatically reelected. Fair redistricting is a revolution within our system that needs to happen. Throughout the country. Now.