Public meetings on political redistricting won't include maps

Derek Catron | The Daytona Beach News Journal | 07/10/2011

State lawmakers will be in Daytona Beach on Tuesday night to hold one in a series of public hearings to gather input on how to draw new lines for state and congressional voting districts.

Since nearly 63 percent of Florida voters indicated last fall they want compact districts that follow city boundaries as much as possible and don't favor incumbents or a political party, this should be easy, right?

State Rep. Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach failed to choke back his laughter at the suggestion. "It's never easy," said Taylor, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing congressional redistricting. "It's never easy."

The challenge before legislators is to balance the state's 18.8 million people equally among 40 Senate and 120 House districts. They also need to figure out where to put two new congressional districts, dividing the state among 27 U.S. House districts.

Easy? Lawmakers in the House and Senate have squirreled away millions for the legal battles they're certain will challenge whatever boundaries they come up with next spring.

But supporters of the constitutional amendments that passed last year mandating fair districts say lawmakers are making the job harder than it has to be. In the eyes of Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, the 26-city redistricting tour that continues through next month is a charade.

That's because legislative leaders decided there would be no proposed maps that would give citizens options to choose from. The chairmen of the overall redistricting committee, Don Gaetz of Niceville in the Senate and Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel from the House, have said maps will be made only after legislators hear from the public.

Macnab wonders what more input the public can provide than last fall's vote.

"Florida taxpayers are getting a poor return on their investment as they foot the bill for an all-expense-paid tour for legislators to travel throughout the state," she said.

The absence of maps, even as examples of how boundaries mightbe redrawn, was a frequent source of criticism from citizens during the first round of redistricting meetings earlier this month in Northwest Florida. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University, said not having maps leaves little for citizens to comment on.

"If I was speaking off the cuff, I don't know that I could do any more than repeat the priorities" of the fair district amendments, he said.

State Rep. Dorothy Hukill, the co-chair of the Senate Redistricting Subcommittee, disagreed.

"If we produced maps before we have any public input, people might think it's a done deal," said Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange. "The whole idea is to listen to as many people as possible. It's a very diverse state, a lot of diverse interests and concerns."

It's an issue both Democrats and Republicans in Tallahassee agree on. Said Taylor, "Some people want to see maps before, but I don't think we can do that until we get the feedback from the public."

Another issue staying the hand of lawmakers is a lawsuit that threatens to throw out the fair district amendments.

A hearing is scheduled for July 29 in Miami for the suit filed by two members of Congress — Mario Diaz-Balert, R-Miami, and Jacksonville Democrat Corrine Brown, whose District 3 includes part of Volusia County. They say the amendments would hurt minority representation in Congress, even though they were supported by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Democracia Ahora.

House Speaker Dean Cannon had his chamber join the suit, too, meaning taxpayers are funding both the House's challenge as well as the state's defense of the new laws. The House set aside $30 million in reserves for the redistricting fight; the Senate budgeted $9 million. (The Legislature spent about $10 million a decade ago in lawsuits over new district boundaries.)

Legislative leaders say they are concerned about impacting minority representation. In communication with the Justice Department this spring, lawmakers said they should be permitted to downplay the requirements of the new amendments in order to preserve majority-minority districts.

The question for voters is whether this concern stems from a desire to promote democratic ideals — or thwart them.

Majority-minority districts like Brown's were a major impetus for the fair district amendments because while they can unite racial or ethnic groups, they also can divide communities. Brown's district, for example, includes parts of Jacksonville, Orlando, Sanford, Gainesville, Palatka and DeLand — cities that have little in common besides predominantly black neighborhoods.

With so many Democrats packed into that one district, Republicans held a numerical advantage in four of the five surrounding districts. The pattern played out in other districts around the state, helping Republicans hold the advantage in a majority of Florida's congressional districts despite being outnumbered by Democrats statewide.

Brown likes to point out, though, that no African-American since 1871 represented Florida in Washington until districts were drawn with an eye toward minority representation in 1992 — the year she was elected.

"We as a community have fought too long and too hard to take a step backwards," she said in reiterating her opposition to the fair district amendments.

But districts that are drawn to give one party a clear advantage can be harmful for a democracy, Stetson's Bailey said.

When candidates feel they only need to win a primary to secure a district, it favors the most conservative Republicans, the most liberal Democrats, Bailey said. And when you get a majority of extremists in Tallahassee, it doesn't lend itself to compromise or solutions to nuanced problems.

"We're creating districts where the so-called moderate Republican or Democrat doesn't exist anymore," Bailey said. "(Unfair) redistricting has helped move them to the extremes. (Fair redistricting is) the only way to restore Florida to a political system that can fulfill the democratic ethos."

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