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Spitting Out the Poison Pill

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The gerrymander - that ugly but all-too-common creature - has thrived in Florida for years. Serpentine Congressional and legislative districts traverse the state everywhere you look. Elections are shockingly uncompetitive, with just three incumbents in the Legislature losing over the past six years (out of 420 elections). And even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida, Republicans control 15 out of 25 Congressional seats, 76 out of 120 House seats, and 26 out of 40 Senate seats.

Hoping to curb this out-of-control gerrymandering, Florida's voters recently placed two initiatives on the ballot for the 2010 elections (one for Congress, one for the Legislature). These initiatives, sponsored by the nonpartisan group FairDistrictsFlorida.org, would ban line-drawers from trying to "favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent." Instead, districts would have to be compact and contiguous, to respect existing political and geographical boundaries, and to safeguard minority voting rights.

The FairDistricts initiatives have been applauded by almost every unbiased observer of the Florida political scene. Major newspapers throughout the state have endorsed them. The Brennan Center for Justice, a well-regarded institute specializing in election law, concluded that they are "well-crafted" and "elegantly resolve the many competing interests in drawing district lines." The Florida Supreme Court rejected every legal challenge that was mustered against them. As for Florida's voters, almost a million of them signed the petitions and the polls show overwhelming support for putting an end to gerrymandering.

Opposition to the initiatives now stems from two sources - one somewhat unexpected, the other not surprising in the least. The unexpected objections come from certain minority groups who worry that their influence would be diminished if Florida's districts were to undergo substantial change. Fortunately, these fears are unfounded. The initiatives actually include protections for minority voting rights that are stronger than federal law and far more robust than anything currently on the books in Florida. For these reasons, the NAACP recently endorsed the measures in the strongest possible terms.

The entirely unsurprising opposition comes from Florida's Republicans - the architects and beneficiaries of the gerrymandered status quo. First, Republicans in the Legislature tried to convince the Florida Supreme Court to strike down the FairDistricts initiatives (a trick they also pulled in getting a similar 2006 proposal nullified). When this effort failed, a Republican-controlled board came up with financial impact statements for the initiatives that were so misleading that the statements had to be redrafted. Most recently, future Senate President Mike Haridopolos and future House Speaker Dean Cannon proposed another redistricting amendment that, if passed, would also appear on the 2010 ballot.

Even as revised in committee, this poison pill amendment lacks all of the good ideas that are in the FairDistricts initiatives. It says nothing about blocking plans that stifle competition or advance only a single party's interests. It doesn't require districts to be compact. Its protections for minority voting rights are weak and easily sidestepped. And, most deviously, it would sabotage the FairDistricts initiatives even if they pass. The amendment gives "priority to [its own] standards" over all other provisions, and it states that plans are valid as long as they are "rationally related to the standards contained in this constitution." This amounts to an instruction to the courts never to strike down a district map, no matter how unfair, uncompetitive, or bizarre it is.

Every member of the Legislature who cares about the integrity of Florida's elections should therefore vote against the poison pill amendment. Since it requires a three-fifths majority in both chambers to make the ballot, opponents do have a shot at stopping this brazen effort to preserve Florida's awful gerrymandering. At the very least, the amendment's supporters should be pressed hard to explain themselves. Why do they want to maintain the status quo? What exactly are their objections to the FairDistricts initiatives? And why are they trying to place their measure on the same ballot as the initiatives, where it will distract and confuse Florida's voters?

Whether or not the Legislature passes the poison pill amendment, the battle over the FairDistricts initiatives will be fierce. Critics will argue (wrongly) that they are a "power grab" by the Democrats, that they will harm minorities, and that they will give rise to endless lawsuits. Harsh words and hyperbolic rhetoric will fill the airwaves. In all this din, it will be crucial not to lose sight of the big picture: the FairDistricts initiatives are Florida's best opportunity in decades to end gerrymandering and make elections fair again. Come November, Floridians wishing to regain control over their democracy would be wise to vote for the initiatives - and to spit out the Legislature's poison pill.

A version of this column was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on April 25.