Editorial: Judge's ruling confirms redistricting sham

Tampa Tribune | 07/12/2014

Voters who supported the “Fair Districts” amendments in 2010 should feel violated by the Florida legislators who presided over a redistricting process that appears to have cast aside the will of the people to further selfish political interests.

In fact, every Floridian, regardless of whether they supported those amendments, should be alarmed when lawmakers blithely ignore the rule of law to maintain political power.

Voters in 2010 passed two constitutional amendments requiring legislators to draw the boundaries of the state’s political districts fairly and without benefit to an incumbent or political party. The amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote.

Yet a ruling Thursday by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis found that shadowy political consultants, working in tandem with legislative staffers in 2012, “made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.”

The judge didn’t stop there. The consultants, he wrote, went to “great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it.”

He found that they “managed to taint the redistricting process...with improper partisan intent.” He ordered the boundaries of two congressional districts be redrawn in compliance with the law.

The judge’s ruling is validation for the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other voter-rights groups that sued when they suspected the new 2012 congressional district boundaries were drawn to favor Republicans, the party in power in Tallahassee. Legislative leaders responded to the lawsuit by doing everything they could to keep their deliberations secret. But a trial over the lawsuit eventually lifted the curtain on a sordid process that involved secret meetings, deleted documents, and a fake email account that may have been created to conceal the involvement of Republican party consultants in drawing the new maps.

Keep in mind that the 2010 amendments were aimed at bolstering transparency and diminishing the influence of party politics on a process that goes a long way toward determining who gets elected to Congress and the state Legislature.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown occupies one of the districts that Lewis ordered redrawn. It runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, and attorneys for the voter-rights groups said it was purposely packed with Democratic voters to ensure the surrounding districts would remain in Republican control. The other district is in Central Florida and occupied by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster. The judge found it was drawn to benefit the Republican Party and the incumbent.

Nobody should be shocked by the intrusion of party politics into a redistricting process. The nation has a long history of shenanigans when it comes to drawing lines that guarantee the party in power stays in power, whether Republican or Democrat.

The outrage here is that the voters sent such a clear message in 2010, and that it appears Tallahassee power brokers still managed to influence the outcome. This is what happens when politicians value partisanship more than the democratic process. And we have no doubt that if the Democrats had been in power, they would pulled similar stunts.

The state needs leaders who care more about people than party politics. How much House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz and former House Speaker Dean Cannon knew about the back-room dealings is unclear, though the judge did point to evidence that Cannon’s aide was sending draft copies of the new district maps to a Republican operative.

Legislative leaders are expected to appeal the judge’s ruling to the Florida Supreme Court. That may delay the redrawing of the maps, or even overturn the finding that lawmakers broke the law.

But it can’t conceal the evidence uncovered during the trial that lawmakers responded to the public’s desire for honest and transparent government with deceit and disdain.

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