Editorial: The wrong way to draw districts

Editorial Board | Then Gainesville Sun | 08/27/2015

If Florida lawmakers have proven anything over the past few weeks, it's that they can't be trusted with drawing legislative districts.

After allowing a shadow redistricting process that violated the Fair Districts state constitutional amendments, the Legislature was given a second chance to get it right.

Instead, a special session this month ended with the GOP-controlled House and Senate failing to agree on new congressional districts.

They can't even agree on how to resolve the impasse, with House leaders asking a court to draw the maps and the Senate asking for more time. Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said Tuesday that he will ask the Florida Supreme Court what to do next.

The developments add more uncertainty to a process already plagued by it. It all bodes poorly for the ability of lawmakers to draw new Senate maps, which they are scheduled to do in October, given that they'll then be drawing districts that more directly affect their own political futures.

It has been said before that voters should pick their lawmakers, but lawmakers shouldn't be able to pick their voters. The Fair Districts amendments were supposed to fix that problem by requiring lawmakers to draw districts that don't favors a particular party or incumbent and keep districts compact as possible.

But the special session showed that even with clear guidelines from the Florida Supreme Court, lawmakers are unable to set aside politics and petty grievances. It provides further evidence that the Fair Districts amendments should be just the beginning of reforms.

As state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said at the beginning of the special session, “Bring me a redistricting commission or something, for goodness sakes. Bring me something that works!”

Six states have their districts drawn by bipartisan panels or independent commissions, the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau reported.

The report found that redistricting commissions in both Arizona and California created more competitive districts than before.

Competitive districts make lawmakers more responsive to voters. They also make legislators more likely to appeal to the middle rather than the extremes members of their party.

Here in Alachua County, we've seen gerrymandering at work in the current congressional map that split the county between districts represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The proposed maps approved by both the Senate and House would have kept the county in one piece in Yoho's district.

As University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith told The Sun, Yoho's district would still be a strong Republican district, just not quite as strong. A moderate Republican might pose a stronger challenge to Yoho in the new district.

Other districts would be made even more competitive. And despite Brown's protestations, the new districts would not harm the interests of minority voters. It might actually help a minority candidate get elected in a neighboring district, while making other black Democrats more likely to challenge Brown in her district, which seems to be her chief concern.

All these issues are moot at the moment as the courts consider what to do next. If the court takes the redistricting duty away from the Legislature and gives it to an independent party, it might be a sign of things to come.

Waiting for lawmakers to mess up districts and the courts to fix them is a waste of time and resources. The current quagmire has shown that an independent redistricting commission is likely the only way to create competitive, compact districts that aren't gerrymandered to favor certain parties or incumbents.

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