Last night a circuit court judge in Florida voided the state’s congressional map, citing a “secret, organized campaign” by Republican operatives that “made a mockery of the Legislature’s transparent and open process of redistricting.” The ruling concluded that District 5, held by Democrat Corrine Brown, and District 10, held by Republican Dan Webster, will need to be redrawn. From a purely practical standpoint, this means redrawing any surrounding districts as well, and possibly many of the state’s 27 districts overall. “If one or more districts do not meet constitutional muster, then the entire act is unconstitutional,” Judge Terry Lewis wrote.
The ruling is something of a barn-burner, and well worth a read. Lewis opens it up with a quote from George Washington warning of “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” who will “subvert the power of the people” and “usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Below, three big takeaways.
1. Half-measures won’t solve the gerrymandering problem
In 2010, Florida voters attempted to fix the issue of partisan gerrymandering by passing two amendments to the Florida Constitution that became known as the Fair District amendments. The amendments limit—but do not eliminate—the state legislature’s discretion in drawing district boundaries, by forbidding districts drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.”
But Lewis found ample evidence that Republicans went ahead and did this anyway. They “conspire[d] to manipulate and influence the redistricting process ... with the intention of obtaining enacted maps for the State House and Senate and for Congress that would favor the Republican party.”
The ruling describes in detail all manner of backroom dealing and horse- trading that went into the redistricting processes. It sounds an awful lot like the process U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal said happened in California during the 2000 redistricting, before the state handed off its redistricting to an independent commission.
This tendency toward secrecy and dealmaking appears to be business as usual in redistricting nationwide, and it is precisely the reason any attempts to fix the problem of gerrymandering that leave the process in politicians’ hands are destined for failure. In the zero-sum game of politics, the stakes are too high for lawmakers to resist the temptation of manipulating district boundaries for partisan gains. “In short,” Lewis writes, “winning is everything.”
2. When it comes to ensuring minority representation, majority-minority districts can be a double-edged sword
Lewis singles out the 5th District, saying it is “visually not compact, bizarrely shaped, and does not follow traditional political boundaries as it winds from Jacksonville to Orlando.” Its finger-like appendage jutting into Seminole County “was done with the intent of benefitting the Republican Party.” The 5th District was originally drawn in the 90s with the intent of creating a majority-minority district, and by extension a safe Democratic seat. Democrat Corinne Brown has held that seat since 1992.
But as I’ve described in detail before, when you concentrate minority voting power in one district, you necessarily dilute it everywhere else. You end up with district-level segregation: minority districts for minority voters. Judge Lewis notes this in the Florida case—the appendage from District 5 going into Seminole County had the net effect of increasing the minority population in District 5, and decreasing it in neighboring District 7, making that district more friendly to Republicans.
3. Gerrymandering creates strange bedfellows
Democrat Corinne Brown, who’s held the 5th District for more than 20 years, last night issued a blistering statement opposing the judge’s ruling. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary describes in great detail, Brown partnered with Republicans to create that district in the 1990s. She’s siding with them again in Florida’s redistricting case, and it’s easy to see the mutual benefit there: Brown gets a safe majority-minority district, while Republicans benefit from diluted minority representation in all the
districts surrounding Brown’s.
In effect, she’s choosing political self-interest over the interest of her party. Forty-seven percent of votes in Florida’s House elections in 2012 went to Democratic candidates, but Democrats won only 39 percent of the state’s House seats. This is partly because Democratic-leaning minority voters were concentrated heavily in District 5, and by extension underrepresented everywhere else.
And this is why the problem of gerrymandering is so difficult to solve at the national level. Individual representatives often stand to gain from the process even when their party loses overall. So political will to tackle the issue is practically nonexistent.
The Florida ruling adds up to a scathing indictment of the redistricting process in that state, and by extension the similar processes that happen in most other states. As long as redistricting remains in the hands of the partisans, real reform is unlikely.