For the last two weeks, as it has redrawn the state's congressional districts to comply with a court order, the Legislature has shown why Florida needs to take political map-drawing away from the politicians.
The Legislature is in special session to change the 27 districts because evidence at trial showed that in 2012 the Republican-led Legislature used Republican consultants in secret to produce a map most favorable to Republicans. The same thing happened in 1992 and 2002. In 2010, however, voters passed the Fair Districts Amendments to make such gerrymandering of congressional and legislative boundaries illegal.
Yet Republicans still defied the public. The 2012 map continued their deal with African-American Democratic incumbents to pack black voters into three districts and spread Republican voters, making many more districts GOP-friendly. The Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which led the drive that got the amendments on the ballot, sued. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court ordered eight districts redrawn. In public.
Oh, the outrage. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, griped that the court had "run roughshod" over the Legislature. Others fumed about "judicial activism."
Republicans made clear that they were acting only because the court had ordered it, not because they had broken the law.
Redrawing those eight districts meant redrawing 22 in all. But even the new base map, which three Republican staff members drew in consultation with Republican lawyers, may have problems. In a letter to legislative leaders, the plaintiffs claim that it still makes District 26 in Miami-Dade County too favorable for GOP incumbent Carlos Curbelo by shifting black voters into District 27 — but not so many as to endanger GOP incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The chairman of the House Redistricting Committee responded by accusing the plaintiffs of asking for "partisan gerrymandering."
Rather than address the potential Miami-Dade problem, the Florida Senate approved a map that further changes three districts in the Tampa Bay area. Lee sponsored the change. As The Tampa Bay Times reported, Lee's new map for District 15 would place incumbent Republican Dennis Ross one street outside the district. Lee, however, would be living in the district. The Senate also has acknowledged that it violated the state constitution in 2012 when redrawing the Florida Senate map.
This is what happens when states allow politicians to pick their voters. The party in power tries to help itself — a few safe districts for the opposition, many more safe districts for itself.
Safe districts, however, create the narrow politics that have paralyzed Congress. The country benefits when elected officials must appeal to broader constituencies in contested elections. In 2012 and 2014, Republicans didn't even run a candidate against Democrat Ted Deutch, whose Palm Beach County-based District 21 would lose its Broward share and pick up the coastal Palm Beach portions of Lois Frankel's District 22. Attempts to maintain District 22's current east-west divide in Broward failed.
In Florida, the system also leads to chopped-up communities. Five members of Congress represent Broward County, but only two have Broward as a majority of their districts. The new map would divide Broward among four lawmakers, with three districts heavily Broward-based.
The only way to keep Florida politicians from picking their voters is to cut the politicians out of the game. Florida should create an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative districts.
For the groups behind the Fair Districts Amendments, the commission was their first choice. The Florida Supreme Court, though, rejected the proposed amendment for the 2006 ballot. The 2010 amendments — one for Congress and one for the Legislature — were a step. But a change in the makeup of the Florida Supreme Court could render the amendments meaningless.
The plaintiffs won't push for an amendment on next year's ballot. Their priority is getting the congressional map corrected. To have a commission in place for the next redistricting in 2022, an amendment would have to go on the 2018 ballot.
To get there, the proposal would have to get through plenty of interference from Tallahassee. The Legislature could challenge the amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a challenge by Arizona's legislature to that state's redistricting commission. The Legislature could put a competing amendment on the ballot, as Florida's investor-owned utilities have done with an amendment on solar power, to confuse voters.
Also, in 2017 the Florida Constitution Revision Commission will meet, and can put amendments on the 2018 ballot. Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders will name 33 of the commission's 37 members. Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi will serve on the commission. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court appoints the other three members.
So don't expect a Republican-dominated commission to tamper with the greatest power Republicans have — a power that Democrats also would try to keep. For now, the Legislature's latest map will go back to the trial judge next month before ultimate review by the Supreme Court. For the future, change the system so that voters pick the politicians.