This time, get the map right

Editorial Board | The Miami Herald | 07/29/2015

Put this in the win column for Sunshine State voters and taxpayers: The Florida Senate saw the handwriting on the wall and decided this week to give up the fight over redistricting.

Instead, Senate leaders wisely opted to call (yet another) special session from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6 to figure out how to draw up a new electoral map to cover at least 28 of the 40 districts that make up the upper chamber in the state Capitol.

Special sessions should be a rare event; this will be the third of the year, which doesn’t speak well for lawmakers, especially the leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature. Yet in this instance, a special session is preferable to throwing money away to defend a tarnished electoral map in court.

The decision is a remarkable victory for voters and groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, who had filed suit to oblige the Legislature to live up to the requirements of the so-called Fair Districts provision of the state Constitution, both in redrawing Senate boundaries and boundaries for Congress.

The measure prohibits drawing lines to favor a political party or its incumbents, commonly called gerrymandering.

The Senate had spent nearly three years and millions of dollars defending its redistricting map, but a recent court decision that ordered the Legislature to redraw the maps for congressional districts was seen as a foreshadowing of how the courts would ultimately view the Senate districts drawn up at the same time.

That earlier decision forced the Legislature to hold what will be its second special session, slated for August.

Senators knew they were staring at another defeat in court, so they bowed to the obvious. The same politically-tainted process that infected congressional redistricting — which the courts ruled invalid — contaminated the Senate redistricting plan, so waiting for an unfavorable court ruling that was nearly certain to come was pointless, not to mention wasteful.

The upshot is that the Senate is now on a tight deadline. The Senate seats need to be redrawn in time for the 2016 elections, as do the congressional seats that are the target of next month’s special session.

Election supervisors need to adjust precinct lines and the courts need to approve the new electoral maps before the Legislature passes them. Potential candidates also need time to prepare, and voters need to know if they’ve been placed in a new district. That’s a tall order given the relatively short period of time.

The best course is for lawmakers to avoid fruitless political infighting and to steer clear of any backroom dealing like the kind that sank the original redistricting effort. That’s how they got in trouble to begin with. Have they learned their lesson?

In throwing in the towel, Senate leaders saved the taxpayers the cost of pursuing a futile and money-wasting lawsuit on behalf of a dubious cause. That’s a good thing, of course.

This time they have to get it right. Indeed, they should have the first time. That would have avoided all the time, expense, and embarrassment of being taken to the woodshed by the courts and advocates for the cause of fair elections.

Every politically aware person in Florida knows that old habits like gerrymandering die hard in Tallahassee, yet it’s not asking too much to expect the people’s representatives to avoid skirting the law or the requirements of the state Constitution. That, after all, is their bottom-line duty.

Senate mea culpa means zip without Fair Districts

Don't look now, but swine are airborne, the damned are doing figure 8s in a certain suddenly arctic Southern clime, and the calendar reads the Twelfth of Never.

That's because Floridians Tuesday witnessed the improbable. The state Senate 'fessed up, admitting it violated the state constitution three years ago with new election maps it drafted for itself.

Tell us something we didn't know. Now, to rectify matters, lawmakers will again try redrawing Senate boundaries in a special session this fall.

An apology it wasn't. Surely, the Senate would've cribbed from comedienne April Winchell — "I can wholeheartedly apologize for not being at all sorry. And it really is the least I can do." — had it feigned regret.

After all, from the beginning, Florida's pols stood in brazen opposition of the proposed constitutional amendment to recast how Florida drew its voting districts. (Remember then-Senate president-designate Mike Haridopolos imperiously ordering Fair Districts activist Ellen Freidin to "look at me" during a 2010 hearing?).

"Who's against fair districts? Nobody is," quoth the Haridopolos

Except state lawmakers. They connived whatever they could to drive a stake through the two citizen initiatives, bundled as Fair Districts, meant to uncork democracy by forcing lawmakers to junk drawing often-serpentine districts preferential to pols or parties, while creating contiguous and compact districts.

There was Amendment 7, meant to "clarify" the Fair Districts amendments. Yet, a judge didn't swallow lawmakers' cynical poison pill, discarding it. Then came lawsuits by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown and Mario Diaz-Balart, first to ban Fair Districts from the ballot, and later, after nearly 63 percent of voters embraced the amendments, to invalidate Amendment 6 because of a faux threat to minority districts.

And who can forget Gov. Rick Scott, who tried to quash the will of voters by stalling federal approval on implementation?

Yet, this month, Florida's Supreme Court stepped in. Republican operatives and consultants conspired to taint the state's redistricting process in 2012, the court concluded. Eight of the state's 27 districts advantaged Republicans or incumbents, violating the constitution.

The court — for the second time — ordered lawmakers to generate a map of congressional districts that honors Fair Districts. They have 100 days.

Sadly, the senatorial concession wasn't an act of conscience, but the reality of being caught with its mitts in the cookie jar.

So, thanks for the confession. And thanks for wasting years and millions of tax dollars subverting the will of the people. And thanks for sticking taxpayers with yet another bill — the fall skull session likely will exceed the $156,411 that special sessions have averaged since 2000.

Maybe, this once, before a blue moon, lawmakers can sublimate the craven self-interest that too long has controlled the process — and finally bring voters closer to the fair elections they've pined for.


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