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Electoral Re-districting In Florida Could Shake Incumbents Loose

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Every 10 years, state lawmakers are required to re-draw electoral district maps to coincide with changes in state population. This year, it's Florida's turn, and developments in Tallahassee since 2010 have put the state squarely in the national spotlight. What's at stake in Florida today goes to the very core of the electoral process - and democratic accountability itself.

Florida's representation in the U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly Republican - as is the composition of the state legislature. But what's most notable about Floridian politics is that incumbents in both chambers have an unusually strong record of success, something which has not escaped the notice of state Democrats, citizen-groups and Florida voters themselves.

Floridians made their discomfort with overwhelmingly high rates of incumbent success very clear in a 2010 referendum when they voted yes on a number of constitutional amendments that would create the conditions for more competitive elections.

Specifically, incumbent dominance in future elections would be strongly curtailed according to Article III, Section 21 of the Florida constitution, which stipulates that "legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party."

Many hoped these amendments would change the landscape of Florida politics. So far however, this has not been the case.

In a February 9 press release, Florida House Re-Districting Chairman Will Weatherford stated that, "by approving these maps during the fifth week of the regular legislative session, the Florida legislature is providing ample time for the maps to be approved and given a thorough and careful review." The chairman, who is also the Republican representative of the Wesley Chapel district, was pleased to have the support of the Senate in ensuring "this process was the most transparent and open in Florida's history."

One week later, on February 16, Florida Governor Rick Scott quietly gave his assent to the new congressional maps established by Florida's lawmakers.

But by that time it was already clear - at least to Democrats and citizen-groups - that the newly proposed electoral maps would not fit the criteria spelled out in the constitutional amendment - and promised much of the same political favoritism to incumbent politicians.

This is why Democrats and citizen groups alike are keenly aware that they will have to look to the courts to do what politicians concerned with keeping their jobs are unable or unwilling to do. The (in)action of Florida's legislators quickly set the stage for a number of official " lawsuits launched against Governor Scott and his party.

Democrats and citizen-groups are aware of the fact that Scott's 'go-ahead' cannot become legally binding without the approval of the Florida Supreme Court. This is where Fair Districts Florida comes in.

Fair Districts Now is a coalition of citizen-groups responsible for bringing these lawsuits forward. Dan Gelber is a former state senator and is currently working as the general counsel for the coalition.

What would change as a function of successful lawsuits?

"The main thing you'll see is competitive seats," said Gelber. "You don't have them now. That's really what I think is the expectation. You'll see legislators at all levels of government who have to comport themselves because they may have to answer to the voters.

"In Florida [state and federal politicians] rarely ever had to answer to the voters because they drew a map that they thought would re-elect them every time."

The constitutional amendment is notable for many reasons, he explained, including the fact that

"Florida is one of the first states that sort of gives the legislature a very clear criteria" for re-drawing electoral district maps.

"Basically all the criteria do is tell the legislators that you can't draw a seat that helps yourself or a political party. That's really critical. They also have to be compact and have geographic and political boundaries, they have to be contiguous, and they can't diminish the opportunities of minorities," he said.

But Gelber stressed that the controversies dominating the media in Florida had little to do with party politics and much more to do with keeping incumbent politicians in check:

"The lawsuits on the congressional criteria were brought by a Democrat and Republican congressperson. While some people may interpret it as Democrat vs. Republican, it tends to be [more] incumbent-based than anything else."

"I don't predict whether it will [benefit] Democrats or Republicans but it will change the type of person who's elected because that person will have to withstand voter scrutiny."

The question now is whether or not the courts, which have traditionally played a minimal role in electoral re-districting, must now interpret the language of the amendments in wider terms.

Florida voters will have a much more clear idea of what to expect in a few weeks. The deadline for the electoral maps is March 9, which leaves politicians just enough time to position themselves before next term's election campaigns get underway. Whether or not the lawsuits clear before then - or whether it will be 'politics-as-usual' in Florida - remains to be seen.

Mike Lapointe is a political writer based in Orlando. If you would like to contribute on-the-ground information as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's election coverage, please contact us at www.offthebus.com.

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