Is It Time for an Independent Redistricting Commission?

Jul 19, 2015 by

In news that shook the political world, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the Legislature needed to reconvene to redraw congressional districts before the 2016 elections. Specifically, the court gave them 100 days to redraw eight congressional seats in a manner consistent with the Fair District Amendments.

This was huge. More than eight of the state’s 27 districts will be affected once the lines start shifting. The dominoes will start to fall and there will be a reshuffling of who will run for which seat. Incumbents who occupy safe seats might find themselves competing against each other or running in less favorably drawn districts.

Congressional members might choose to run for another office — like the open U.S. Senate seat. State legislators might decide to run for congressional seats. Local elected officials might be eyeing a legislative seat. Rumors are running rampant.

Lost in all this political speculation is the real news — the court ruled in favor of the voters. The Fair District Amendments are being enforced and legislators have been reprimanded for circumventing them.

League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman summed it up: “This ruling is not only a huge victory for the people of Florida, but a great American civics lesson. The Supreme Court took our legislature to the woodshed with a strong whipping for their egregious behavior. This is a victory for the voice of the people and our democratic system.”

For those unfamiliar with the redistricting process, here’s a little background.

Every 10 years a national census is done to measure total population and population shifts. Each state must determine new district lines for congressional and state legislative seats based on the new population numbers. In most states, including Florida, this is done by the Legislature.

This allows legislators from the political party in power to draw lines in a manner that almost ensures it will be able to win more seats. They craft districts around the registered voters that will favor their party’s candidate.

Let’s be clear — both parties do it.

Redistricting is one of the most partisan activities in our political process. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of cramming all the voters that would favor the minority party in one district, diluting their ability to affect the outcome in several other seats? After all, in politics, it’s all about winning.

Why don’t legislators in the minority party stop it? Some try, but others are happy with the seat drawn for their district and reward legislative leadership with their vote as a thank you for taking care of them. After all, to those in the minority, it’s also about survival.

Voters grew tired of this abuse of power that diluted their vote and in 2010 passed the Fair District Amendments with 63 percent of the vote.

The intent was to stop lawmakers from intentionally drawing districts that favor incumbents or political parties. As with most constitutional amendments the Legislature doesn’t like, they circumvent them.

But now the Florida Supreme Court is forcing the Legislature to convene a special session to redraw congressional seats.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Last August, the Legislature held a special session to change two congressional districts at the directive of Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. Lewis wrote a scathing opinion on the role of political operatives in drawing the tainted maps and chastised the Legislature for deleting redistricting emails.

The Legislature will meet, at taxpayer expense, to try for the third time to meet the criteria set forth in the Fair District Amendments.

Meanwhile, a challenge to Florida Senate districts is working its way through the courts. Subpoenas are being issued to senators, staff and political operatives in preparation for a September court date.

On the federal level another important redistricting milestone was taking place. Overshadowed by eagerly awaited decisions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s independent redistricting commission — and by implication those in other state — were constitutional.

Perhaps Florida should readdress forming an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative districts.

Think of possible advantages: A commission would remove some of the politics; reduce the need for costly litigation; lessen the confusion for elections supervisors, voters and candidates; open the process to real citizen input and involvement, and achieve better results with districts drawn logically instead of strategically.

The Legislature is unlikely to relinquish this power willingly, so it would likely fall to Florida citizens to initiate a constitutional change.

It’s worth considering. The next U.S. Census takes place in 2020. By then Florida’s costly redistricting lawsuits might be settled. Do we really want to start another round?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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