Fair Districts won't change much, but were worth fighting for

Bill Cotterell | Tallahassee Democrat | 01/04/2016

The lawyers, the legislators and the judges have leveled Florida’s congressional and legislative playing fields — or at least, they’ve made them as near-level as possible — so now, it will be up to the voters.

The net change of some six years of Capitol intrigue is likely to be not much, at least not at first. Maybe a couple seats in the U.S. House of Representatives go from Republican to Democratic, and perhaps a small number of state Senate districts will flip the same way this year.

But a state with Democrat voter registration slightly outnumbering Republicans will probably continue to have GOP majorities in both Tallahassee and Washington – if slightly smaller ones. Our U.S. House delegation is now 17-10 Republican and the GOP controls the Florida Senate by a 26-14 margin; making them 15-12 and 24-16 isn’t going to change policy a lot.

So was it worth all the trouble, the special legislative sessions and prolonged court review, just to make the partisan divide just a little less lopsided? You bet it was.

When they overwhelmingly approved the “Fair Districts Florida” constitutional amendments in 2010, Florida voters weren’t trying to help Democrats or Republicans. They were trying to end that old truism that, in Florida, the lawmakers pick their voters, the voters don’t pick their legislators.

Circuit Judges Terry Lewis, in the Congressional case, and George Reynolds, in the state Senate dispute, sided with the League of Women Voters and a coalition of plaintiffs who insisted that “fair districts” means just what those words say. The Florida Supreme Court agreed.

The constitutional amendments forbid legislators to favor or dis-favor incumbents or political parties in drawing political districts. Districts have to be as compact as possible and comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, giving minority voters a fair chance to elect members of their choosing.

Legislators of both parties had amply demonstrated that they couldn’t put partisan gamesmanship aside, in drawing their own districts, so the voters forced the amendments on them.

It’s been a long fight, and it’s not completely over.

Republican legislative leaders went to court, trying to keep the amendments off the ballot, arguing that overlaying so many conditions on redistricting was like telling everybody to line up alphabetically according to age, height and weight.

Losing in court and at the polls, the House and Senate leaders solemnly promised to run a non-partisan, honest, straight-forward, apolitical, non-gerrymandered, blindered process. Then they ran a game that would shock a three-card Monte dealer.

There were special sessions, amid Republican complaints that the supposed apolitical plaintiffs were really fronting for the Democrats. One House member even suggested calling Supreme Court justices before a legislative committee to explain themselves.

When the lines were drawn in 2012, there were unannounced meetings, disappearing emails, some maps circulated to GOP consultants before being made public, other maps submitted under fictitious names. Outnumbered Democrats warned of what ultimately happened – an utter rout in the courts – and now they want to create a special independent commission to draw the lines next time.

That won’t happen, at least not until the Democrats retake the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature – and that won’t happen any time soon.

In raw numbers, if you consider only voter registration, the new Senate map tilts Democratic. That gives the party hope for 2018, 2020 and beyond.

But there’s a lot more than registration involved. There’s money, incumbency and bench strength – the ability to field plausible candidates – and those factors favor the Republicans.

Around here, Sen. Bill Montford is unaffected. His district was not in play during the redistricting session or the court cases. He’s unopposed at this time, and likely to remain so.

After Reynolds signed off with the plaintiffs’ map last week, rejecting the Senate’s less Democrat-friendly alternative, Senate President-designate Joe Negron of Stuart expressed confidence that not much is going to change. He signaled that the Senate won’t appeal Reynolds’ ruling, but that Republicans can live with the map the judge sent them.

“Florida families, businesses and our economy have all flourished under Republican-led policies and governing,” he said, “and I intend to use all of the resources and talents of the GOP to maintain a Republican-led Senate.”

Negron didn’t specifically mention money and incumbency – the two biggest things his party has going for it – but he didn’t have to. That’s what legislators mean when they say “resources and talents.”

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