Romano: Time to take map drawing privileges away from legislators

John Romano | Tampa Bay Times | 07/11/2015

Follow the time line here:

1. Voters tell lawmakers not to cheat.

2. Lawmakers swear they won't.

3. The Florida Supreme Court says they did.

That's abbreviated, but it's factual. Legislators in Florida not only defied the Constitution, but defied the express wishes of most of you.

Essentially, they made a mockery of a constitutional amendment that said voting districts should not be drawn to favor parties or incumbents.

So the Supreme Court is making them redraw congressional districts, and another court will probably make them redraw some state legislative districts.

That is today's remedy.

And here is tomorrow's:

Take their redistricting privileges away.

We knew legislators from both parties had been rigging districts for years, so we put safeguards in place — in the state Constitution, no less — and it still didn't stop them.

"As a member of the Legislature, I have a front-row seat to this process,'' said state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "I know the natural self-interests involved. They have an interest in perpetuating incumbency, and an interest in perpetuating power.

"Recent events have shown the Legislature is uniquely unfit to draw these maps.''

Dudley has already started making calls to other states to get ideas for forming an independent commission that would be in charge of the once-a-decade job of drawing maps. He'll likely propose it during the 2016 legislative session, and it will likely be ignored by the hypocrites in power.

That means it will eventually fall into your hands.

You almost had a chance nine years ago when enough Floridians signed petitions to start a constitutional amendment that would have 1) created a commission and 2) specified rule changes for map drawing. That turned out to be a strategic error. Amendments are limited to one topic, and the Supreme Court ruled this had overreached with the two.

So a few years later, the Constitution was amended with just the new redistricting rules. That's the amendment your lawmakers just spit on while laughing behind your back.

"What Florida voters did was hand the Legislature a new set of keys with one request: Don't drive off the road while creating these maps,'' said Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert and law professor at Loyola Law School. "The Florida Supreme Court made it abundantly clear the Legislature crashed that car, and then tried desperately to hide it.''

Now, down the road, you may hear a lawmaker squawk about putting redistricting in the hands of an unelected commission with no accountability. If so, you will know this lawmaker is:

A. A political huckster.

B. Worried about losing power.

Remember, these are the same lawmakers who were so suspicious of educators that they hijacked teacher evaluations, because they said school officials couldn't be trusted. And yet we're supposed to trust legislators — after repeated examples of their deceitful tricks while drawing maps — to faithfully draw the borders that determine their re-elections?

This is not some wonky, behind-the-scenes issue. This is the heart and soul of democracy. This is lawmakers essentially robbing you of your voting privilege because they have stacked districts so the outcomes are virtually predetermined before the first ballot is cast.

For lawmakers to say a nonpartisan, or bipartisan, commission would have no accountability is almost laughable.

"The result of gerrymandering is that the politicians themselves become unaccountable,'' said Dan Vicuna, the national redistricting coordinator for Common Cause. "We'll hear the argument that citizen committees have no accountability, but that doesn't seem to fly when you consider the politician's self-interest in drawing a district.''

Only a handful of states have independent committees, but that's likely to change in the coming years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a challenge to Arizona's commission last month.

As for the need in Florida, that's beyond dispute. Legislators have already proven themselves untrustworthy.

The only question left is whether voters do something about it.

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