Redistricting: Lift the Veil and Fix Districts

Editorial Board | The Ledger | 07/31/2014

A Leon County judge found that Republican lawmakers and consultants “made a mockery” out of a redistricting process that was supposed to be open and transparent.

The ruling in the redistricting case leads to two more critical decisions to be made – one involving a push for public records, another involving the districts.

First, the public records. Even though Judge Terry Lewis struck down two congressional districts with his decision earlier this month, the public is still being kept in the dark about the process in which those districts were drawn. One of the districts is the seat held by U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, who represents part of Polk County.

The public and media were barred from the courtroom during the presentation of a key piece of evidence, which remains under seal: hundreds of pages of documents from GOP consultant Pat Bainter of the Gainesville firm Data Targeting.

Now the First Amendment Foundation and a coalition of news organizations including the Halifax Media Group, owner of The Ledger, are pressing for the records to be released. The Florida Supreme Court should do so to allow the public to better understand Lewis’ ruling.

The judge wrote that the documents were “very helpful” to him in reaching the decision. The documents “evidenced a conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature” into violating the state constitution, Lewis wrote.

He noted that the consultants described their map drawing as just “a hobby,” but the documents reveal “not only the fact that some of these consultants were submitting maps to the Legislature, but to show how extensive and organized that effort was, and what lengths they went in order to conceal what they were doing.”

Second, the “what’s next” involving the districts.

Because the Legislature chose not to appeal, it acknowledges it lost. To allow the election to proceed as planned creates two serious problems:

Legislators who violated the law get to continue using the illegally produced map for another two years because it would be inconvenient to fix it now. The map is illegal, plain and simple. Legislators created the problem, and they are now trying to get their way without the expense or inconvenience of fighting in court.

Why would we think that this will be the end of the legal fight if we continue with the election? Because of the ruling, moving ahead begs for someone to challenge the proceedings and the outcome. Why wouldn’t they, especially if the “they” is the losing side? It’s almost like a free play in football where the referee throws the flag but lets the play continue. If you’re the side not flagged, you let the play go on and reject the outcome if you don’t like it.

But Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards says it’s too late to apply the brakes. Such a change could cause unforeseen consequences to other candidates on the ballot.

“It’s not to say we shouldn’t do it right,” she said Tuesday. “But I don’t think logistically and mechanically we can do it. I think the horse is out of the gate by now. All over the state, people have already voted by absentee ballots.”

She also said it takes time to draw districts – and do it right.

“We need input from the public,” she said. “Then, all the election officials, we have to redraw our maps, recode each voter, notify each voter — a requirement by law — that you’re not in this district, you’re in that one. ... It puts it well out of range for the November elections, let alone August.”

We understand the supervisor’s concerns, and we don’t envy her position. Nevertheless, we think two things need to happen in this case:

Lewis lifted the veil from the redistricting process with his ruling. Now it is up to the Florida Supreme Court to pull it off completely by releasing the records. Few things are more sacred in our democracy than the right to vote, and it would be ridiculous not to make public documents that describe a conspiracy to manipulate voting, particularly if the rationale against it is to protect the “trade secrets” that show how one of the parties in the conspiracy manipulated the system.

The judge should rule that the U.S. House elections in Florida – all of them – are on hold until the state’s 27 districts are redrawn according to the law. It’s possible every district could be affected by changes in two.

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