Editorial: Enough with the 'bad faith' politics, draw fair districts

Editorial Board | The Palm Beach Post | 08/11/2015

Few words are more likely to put readers to sleep than “redistricting,” “reapportionment” and “gerrymandering.”

So in the interest of keeping all of you awake, let’s call this subject what it is: politicians cheating on a grand scale.

And because the Republican-led Legislature has been caught by the courts not once but twice, Florida’s lawmakers are back in Tallahassee today to try — again — to draw a map of U.S. Congressional districts that isn’t a jigsaw-like concoction meant to stock Washington with as many Republicans as possible.

The legislators are reconvening on orders of the Florida Supreme Court, which found on July 20 that, just as a trial judge said earlier, lawmakers’ earlier drafts of a congressional map had made a “mockery” of the the Fair Districts amendments, which Florida voters passed in 2010 by a hefty margin. Thanks to that vote, it’s now a violation of the state constitution for the Legislature to draw a map or an individual district with the “intent to favor of disfavor a political party or incumbent.”

The court’s 5-2 ruling compels the Legislature to redraw eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts (and any affected adjacent districts), and to have a new map ready by Oct. 17. The justices implored the Legislature to conduct all decision-making meetings in public and preserve records of any non-public meetings.

This is important because, as testimony showed in a trial last year, when the Legislature redrew the map in 2012, Republican Party consultants were given preview looks at proposed boundaries from legislative staffers and possibly managed to get their crafted maps submitted at public hearings. Legislators and staff also admitted to deleting critical emails and meeting behind closed doors with top GOP officials in Tallahassee and Washington.

The same skullduggery was probably afoot when districts were redrawn for the Florida Senate, but we will never know from trial testimony because on July 28 Senate leaders conceded in a lawsuit filing to having violated the Fair Districts amendments when crafting Senate districts. To fix that mess, the Legislature will reconvene in October for yet another special session.

The present session, on congressional districts, is scheduled to last through Aug. 21. It got off to an informal start last week with the release of a “base map” drawn up by legislative staff. It’s the starting point for debate.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause, the groups that sued the Legislature in the first place, quickly expressed concern with the process, saying the base map should have been drawn in public to ensure full transparency.

But spokespersons for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner assured that everything will be plenty enough public. Right. Based on their records for open and nonpartisan decision-making, why shouldn’t we believe them?

The base map does look less tortured than the discredited 2012 version; fewer counties and cities are split into multiple districts. That puts us closer to the constitutional requirements that districts be nearly equal in population, compact, and use political and geographic boundaries when feasible. Still, there is lots to argue about.

One of the issues is close to home. District 21 (Rep. Ted Deutch) and District 22 (Rep. Lois Frankel) currently run side to side in a north-south pattern. In the base map, the districts are “stacked” one on the other, running more east-west, with less bleeding into both Palm Beach and Broward counties. If that holds, the politics of re-election would change significantly for the two Democrats.

A bigger problem is in the far north of the state, where the court ordered that the “bizarre,” Italy-shaped District 5, a black-voting stronghold, be redrawn to run west from Jacksonville. The longtime incumbent, Democrat Corrine Brown, says the new map creates “minority vote dilution” and filed a lawsuit Thursday on Voting Rights Act grounds.

Can the Legislature devise a scheme that satisfies the court and complies with the constitution? They can if they quit playing politics. It’s now almost five years since voters demanded that fair districts. Enough, already.

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