Editorial: Redraw the district

Editorial Board | The Gainesville Sun | 07/17/2014

A judge’s decision striking down Rep. Corrine Brown’s congressional district found that its bizarre shape is more about protecting Republican election prospects than protecting minority voting rights.

By attacking the decision, Brown, D-Jacksonville, is making it clear that her main concern is protecting her job — even if it means ideological allies have a tougher time winning in neighboring districts.

A Leon County judge last week struck down the district, finding it was drawn in violation of the state’s Fair Districts amendments. Brown has blasted the decision as an “insensitive ruling” that might deny black voters the chance “to elect a representative who shares their ethnic identity.”

Her district, which connects black population centers stretching from Jacksonville to Gainesville to Orlando, was clearly drawn to correct a historical wrong. Before 1992, Florida had not elected a black representative to Congress in 121 years.

But in the 22 years since Brown was first elected, her district has been drawn in an increasingly odd shape for another reason. Lewis’ ruling found that GOP operatives and lawmakers further distorted its shape to remove minority voters from neighboring districts “with the intent of benefitting the Republican Party.”

At one point, the district narrows to the width of Highway 17. A finger-like appendage juts into Seminole County. These measures boosted the number of minority voters in Brown’s district, but also meant there were fewer minority voters in neighboring districts to the benefit of Republicans running in them.

Brown argues that her district adheres to the principles of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But as Lewis noted, the Fair Districts amendments includes similar protections for minority voting rights, but also requires districts that are compact and follow political and geographic boundaries when feasible.

Lewis’ ruling found that Republicans operatives “made of mockery” of a redistricting process that was supposed to be transparent and open. GOP legislative leaders have said they won’t appeal the ruling but asked that the redrawing of districts be delayed until after this fall’s elections.

The Fair Districts amendments forbid the drawing of districts to favor a political party or incumbent. While Lewis concedes in his ruling that taking politics out of redistricting might be impossible, there has to do a better way of doing it than the current process.

A number of states use bipartisan or non-partisan commissions to draw districts.

California’s commission is supposed to ignore incumbent protection while creating districts that are compact and keep together communities. Iowa tried to remove politics from its process by requiring that no political or election data be used in drawing districts.

Whatever additional changes need to be made, it would be good to have lawmakers such as Corrine Brown in support of the changes rather than fighting them. Right now, it’s hard to see her efforts as anything more than job protection in the guise of something more noble.

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