Florida's Gerrymander War: The Pols vs. The People

10/12/2010 10:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Richard Hebert Award-winning investigative reporter, formerly of The Atlanta Constitution

Politics may make strange bedfellows, but once in a while it also makes surprising adversaries. So it is this year in Florida's Gerrymander War. In one corner, a bipartisan tag team of minority congressional members, Black Democrat Corrine Brown and Hispanic Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, plus state legislators, including some Blacks. Facing off against them, longtime champions of minority rights -- the NAACP, ACLU and a host of other organizations.

Florida's legislative district maps are crazy-quilts designed by politicians for politicians. The quilt-makers are the state legislators. Armed with today's technologies, they select the census tracts where their likeliest supporters live, in effect picking their voters, not the other way around. Fort Lauderdale, for example, is sliced and diced among four congressional districts.

After every Census, states must redraw their legislative and congressional districts to reflect population shifts. Only Indiana and Rhode Island have fewer rules than Florida for doing this. As a blogger on Swing State Project put it, "Florida is perhaps the most masterful Republican gerrymander in the nation."

It doesn't matter that registered Republicans are a minority, 35.8 percent to 42 percent Democrat and 19 percent independent. More than 60 percent of Florida's House and Senate members are Republican. So are 15 of Florida's 25 congressional representatives. Only 10 of the 505 incumbent legislators who sought re-election since 2000 were defeated. Why? Gerrymandering.

No two Florida congresspersons are more protected by the gerrymandering than Reps. Brown and Diaz-Balart. Look at their districts. Brown's, District 3, snakes through parts of nine counties, from Jacksonville to Orlando, with heavy Black populations.

Diaz-Balart's case is even more bizarre. He represents District 25, the southern tip of the state's mainland from western Miami to Naples on the Gulf Coast, including much of the Everglades. (In 2002 he chaired the legislative committee that mapped it.) Meanwhile, his brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, represents neighboring District 21, a heavily Hispanic strip that curls like a question mark from western Broward County on the north to Homestead south of Miami. Lincoln isn't seeking reelection, so brother Mario is switching districts (his victory margins in District 25 have been narrowing). He is unopposed in his bid to succeed Lincoln.

One of his future constituents, Marcia Finkel, emailed me: "I have more in common with others in my ZIP code than I do with people in Broward -- and...others in my ZIP code (who live in D-25) have more in common with me than they do with people in Naples."

Reformers have been trying since the early 1970s to end gerrymandering. This year, with Amendments 5 and 6 on the ballot, they believe they have a real shot at getting the 60 percent approval needed for adoption.

FairDistrictsFlorida, a nonpartisan citizens group, and the League of Women Voters gathered more than 1.7 million signatures to put two amendments on the ballot setting some rules the Legislature must follow. FairDistricts chair is Ellen Freidin, a veteran of past efforts including membership on the state's 1992 Constitutional Review Commission, and honorary co-chairs include former senator and governor Bob Graham, and former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

Amendments 5 and 6 are identical except that one applies to state legislative districts, the other to congressional districts. They forbid drawing districts "to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent" or to deny or abridge "the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process." Further, they mandate that "where feasible, (districts) utilize existing political and geographical boundaries."

In response, Florida's legislators drafted their own amendment for the November ballot. It pledged to protect "communities of interest" and contained a "poison pill" that would nullify the rules written into Amendments 5 and 6 should they also be approved.

The battle lines were drawn. Newspapers throughout the state railed against the Legislature's proposal. The Miami Herald called it a "sham." A St. Petersburg Times columnist called it "a sneaky attempt to trick Florida voters." The Gainesville Sun said legislators "should be ashamed of their self-serving arrogance."

Supporters of Amendments 5 and 6 challenged Amendment 7 in court as "flying under false colors." Tallahassee Circuit Judge James Shelfer agreed, after three days trying to grasp what it meant. He didn't think voters would understand it in their few minutes in the voting booth. The state Supreme Court agreed with him. Amendment 7 was dead.

By then Reps. Brown and Diaz-Balart had reciprocated with a lawsuit of their own, challenging Amendments 5 and 6 as also misleading. A judge ruled against them. The language of the amendments had already passed muster with the state Supreme Court -- a prerequisite for getting citizen-sponsored measures on the ballot. The score: FairDistricts 2, Legislature 0.

Undeterred, Brown and Diaz-Balart continue to campaign against the amendments, insisting they will reduce minority representation despite explicit language that forbids "denying or abridging" minorities' voting rights.

Spokesperson Kelly Penton says FairDistricts is optimistic it will secure the necessary 60% voter approval for several reasons. Those 1.7 million signatures, to begin with. Plus the outreach of the high-membership community groups supporting them: in addition to the Florida chapters of NAACP, ACLU and the League of Women Voters, the list includes the Florida League of Cities, Florida League of Mayors, Legislative Black Caucus, Florida Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials and Democracia Ahora (Democracy Now).

"The only opposition," Penton says, has come "from incumbent politicians, lobbyists and special interests." The "timing" is right, too, she said. While not saying so explicitly, the anti-incumbent mood among voters can't be hurting a campaign that seeks to take map-drawing decisions away from entrenched incumbents.