Florida districting trial exposes political dirty laundry

PAULA DOCKERY | Miami Herald | 06/30/2014

Every 10 years after a census, political lines are redrawn nationally to reapportion congressional seats based on population. Growing states, like Florida, may pick up a congressional seat or two at a cost to other states. Such was the case in 2012.

In Florida, the Legislature draws the lines for its own districts as well as those for the growing congressional delegation. While we would like to believe these lines would be drawn fairly and without regard to protecting incumbents, rewarding favorites and growing representation by the majority party, there’s reason to question the outcomes of previous efforts under both parties. Attempts to move redistricting responsibility from the hands of legislators to independent or bipartisan committees, as in seven other states, haven’t gained traction.

Frustrated by what they viewed as an incestuous arrangement, citizens and voting-rights groups, including the League of Women Voters, led the effort to place a pair of constitutional amendments on the ballot for voters to consider.

These “Fair Districts” amendments were intended to force the Legislature to draw lines without regard to incumbency protection, gerrymandering and other political considerations. So what’s happened since they passed in 2010?

The House districts drawn by the Florida House were reviewed by the courts and found to comply substantially with the requirements. The Senate districts drawn by the Florida Senate were sent back with several areas of deficiency to be addressed.

The real action occurred in the challenge to the congressional districts. Florida picked up two congressional seats. Just who would be the beneficiary of this gain? Which geographic region of the state? Would it be Republican-rich Southwest Florida or Democrat-rich South Florida?

The simple math paints a picture of artful congressional line drawing. Republicans control 17 out of the 27 congressional seats despite the fact that Democrats have 4.6 million registered voters compared to 4.1 million registered Republicans.

To complicate matters, those in office in the minority party are more interested in self-preservation and are often willing to cut deals if their seat is protected — even if the overall maps are carved up in bewildering and illogical shapes and sizes.

This was common practice but, while questionable, was unlikely to be overturned in a court of law. But the rules are different now. With the Fair Districts amendments firmly planted in our state Constitution, the League of Women Voters challenged the congressional redistricting maps in court.

The trial exposed the underbelly of the political process in ways that are extremely unflattering.

Among the courtroom revelations:

• Emails related to redistricting were deleted by the Florida House.

• Lawmakers participated in secret meetings.

• Lawmakers’ offices shared internal data and drafted maps with political consultants before publicly releasing them.

• Some of the districts appear to have been created by a Republican operative and submitted using a phony email account.

• One political scientist testified that it would be “virtually impossible” for legislators to draw the warped districts they did without intentional political bias.

• Another expert called Florida’s districts the most biased he had ever seen.

Regardless of how the court rules and whether or not the congressional lines will be redrawn, the Fair Districts amendments have started to change the way redistricting is done. It has also exposed the great lengths some will go to circumvent them.

The political operatives have had free rein, and now they are either shut out or forced underground, depending on whose version of the trial testimony you believe.

How dare those pesky voters interfere with their political turf!

Sixty-three percent of the voters felt strongly enough to change their state Constitution to demand fair districts. Are they paying attention now?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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