Fair fight: Fair Districts Florida fights for sensible districting rules

Jul. 17, 2009

Fair Districts Florida is a nonpartisan state committee that is working to reform how legislative and Congressional district lines can be redrawn during redistricting, a process that takes place every 10 years — the organization is spearheading a petition drive to get two Florida constitutional amendments placed on the November 2010 ballot. Currently, the law only requires districts to be roughly equal in population and contiguous, meaning all parts must touch. The proposed amendments will require that districts make use of city, county and geographic boundaries whenever feasible.

Not surprisingly, politicians have stretched the current rules. Literally. One of the most glaring examples is U.S. Congressional District 11, which begins in north Tampa, scrapes along the east edge of Tampa Bay, jaggedly cuts through downtown Bradenton and continues over the Skyway Bridge to encompass a large portion of downtown St. Pete, excluding the waterfront areas. (You can see an image of the district after the jump, below.) This is Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor’s district — the four districts surrounding it are all represented by Republicans.

This voter cherry-picking, known as gerrymandering, is seen statewide. Two thirds of the state legislature and 60 percent of the Congressional delegation is currently under Republican control, although Florida voter registration measures 36 percent Republican, 42 percent Democratic and 22 percent other. This is because after the 2001 redistricting the Republican-controlled legislature handily passed their dream districts, giving themselves virtually guaranteed seats in the majority party, and less obligation to their constituents. Whichever party has control in 2011 will wield the same power — unless Florida voters change the rules.

Last week, I spoke with Fair Districts Florida campaign chair Ellen Freidin:

What is the problem with the current redistricting system?

“The biggest problem is under our present system there is no law to keep the legislators from choosing their voters. The legislature would do an analysis and figure out what kind of voter will vote for them and then try to get as many of those voters in their district as they can. It’s always been a problem in Florida, but it really has only become a meaningful problem in the last 20 years. Now, with the advent of computers it has become a bigger problem because of the capacity they have to find the voters they want. It can be house to house, and often is. The majority party tries to pack as many opposition voters in as few districts as possible. There’s a committee and the majority party members have more input into it, the minority has far less input. Whoever is leading the legislature is going to have control of how the lines are drawn. It’s a totally rigged system, and it’s unfair to the voters.”

Do you expect legislators to put up a fight?

“They’re going to try, but we’ve done the best we can. Voters are going to have to be vigilant if they see districts being proposed that aren’t compliant to the rules. And the courts can always enforce the rules. Redistricting always lies on the courts. There’s always litigation over redistricting; it’s actually required. Before, what was happening was that the courts didn’t have any rules to go by.”

What have you done to stop this gerrymandering?

“Actually, the Constitution Revision Commission took on this issue in 1998 but they never got anything on the ballot. Our language has already been approved by the Florida Supreme Court. We have two constitutional amendments, one for Congressional and one for legislature. These amendments would establish rules that they have to follow when drawing the lines. I’m confident it will get on the ballot. You have to collect 676,811 valid signatures for each amendment. You have to collect 25 percent more because some might be invalid. We have definitely over a million, and we have until the end of the year. I think it’s going to make a big change in Florida because now voters are really going to have a chance to choose their representatives instead of their representatives rigging the elections.”

Freiden will be speaking about more her efforts with State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald and former Sarasota Herald-Tribuneeditorial page editor Waldo Proffitt at a Forum Truth event at 7 p.m. Thurs., July 29. Basic tickets are $25, and the event takes place at Holley Hall, 709 N. Tamiami Trail. Visit forumtruth.org for more information.

In the interests of full disclosure: Creative Loafing Editor Cooper Levey-Baker sits on the Forum Truth board.

 

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