Prevent Florida politicians from picking their voters

Randy Schultz | Sun Sentinel | 07/18/2015

Time after time, the Florida Legislature has ignored direct orders from the public. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to obey the most important order in recent years.

Five years ago, voters changed the Florida Constitution to ban the Legislature from drawing congressional and legislative districts "to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent." The Fair Districts Amendments, which got nearly 63 percent of the vote, aimed to end gerrymandering — the ruling party maximizing the power of its voters and minimizing the power of the other party's voters. In Florida, politicians have been picking the voters.

Republicans in Tallahassee, however, risked losing their greatest power — a power they had been using masterfully. Barack Obama may have carried Florida twice, but Republicans hold 17 of 27 congressional seats. Important note: If Democrats had a chokehold on Tallahassee, they would be drawing lines for their benefit.

In 2010, when the amendments became law, the federal government took the latest Census. In 2012, as in 1992 and 2002, the Legislature would use new population statistics to draw new districts. Then-Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford promised Florida's "most open and transparent" redistricting process. In fact, much of the work happened in private, with the intent of defying the new rules.

The Florida League of Women Voters, which had led the drive for the amendments, and other plaintiffs sued over the congressional maps. They won, but the judge ordered a redrawing of only the two most egregiously gerrymandered seats — Democrat Corrine Brown's (District 5) and Republican Dan Webster's (District 10.)

The plaintiffs appealed, and last week the Florida Supreme Court ordered the redrawing of those two plus six other districts, including the Broward-Palm Beach seats of Democrats Lois Frankel (District 22) and Ted Deutch (District 21.) Changing those eight districts could mean new boundaries for 10 other districts.

As for that promise of "open and transparent," trial testimony read "like a Carl Hiaasen novel," said League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman. Emails that could have shown collusion to avoid the rules were deleted. Republican operatives identified districts that needed to be more GOP-favorable.

Two examples stand out. Republicans crossed Tampa Bay to cram Democrats from Pinellas County into Hillsborough County-centered District 14, held by Democrat Kathy Castor. A Republican consultant had called an earlier version of the district "far from perfect." With that shift, the GOP made Pinellas-centered District 13 more Republican-friendly. The current representative is Republican David Jolly.

Under the Fair Districts Amendments, however, the Legislature must follow geographic boundaries when possible. The new maps almost certainly will put more Democrats into District 13. Democrats could win both seats. Charlie Crist is already talking about running for District 13.

The other example is from Miami-Dade County. The issue in drawing districts 26 and 27 was the city of Homestead. Despite that constitutional requirement to observe geographic lines, the final map divided the city. As the court noted, the split "turned one Republican district and one Democratic district into two Republican-leaning districts." Republicans hold both seats.

Splitting Homestead, the court wrote, "was one of several key decisions made in a non-public meeting between Senator Gaetz, Representative Weatherford and the two staff directors of the respective redistricting committees." Though legislative leaders settle budget disputes that way, redistricting in Florida "involves a constitutional restraint on the Legislature's actions."

Not that the Legislature cares. For now, Tallahassee has until Sept. 25 to devise congressional maps for the 2016 election that satisfy the court. For permanent change, Florida must take redistricting power from the Legislature.

The plaintiffs tried that in 2008, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution only the Legislature can draw districts. Goodman said, however, that last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Arizona redistricting case "changes the landscape." She predicts that the 2018 ballot will carry a proposal to create an independent redistricting commission.

For the Legislature, the misery won't end in September. That month, testimony begins in the case against the Florida Senate map. Given the high court's action on the congressional map, the Legislature could save the public much time and money by anticipating defeat and redrawing those districts. Openly and transparently.

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