Our opinion: Time for fair districts

Tallahassee Democrat Editorial Board | Tallahassee Democrat | 07/12/2015

Suppose you had a big cake pan shaped exactly like the state of Florida and 27 lumps of dough of precisely the same size.

You could wedge them together – some segments long and skinny to link coastal communities, others thick and compact to cover big cities, some rolled flat as a pizza to span broad areas of scant population, and some split in two or three hunks to cluster around Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades. That would make sense, if you had no intention of favoring one part over another.

Making congressional districts after the census every 10 years, you could just start at the Alabama line and come east until you have about 710,000 people, then draw a line. Go east some more and draw another line. Then start south until – well, you get it.

In a perfect world, redistricting would be as simple as baking a cake with something for everyone. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

The coming realignment of Florida’s 27 districts is affected by the nation’s history of racial discrimination and the presumptions of the people drawing the lines. We have political people doing the most political thing that government does, a tight timeframe in which to do it, and the gimlet-eyed oversight of the state and federal courts.

Legislators have tried twice already since voters imposed the “Fair Districts Florida” constitutional amendments in 2010, and they failed. They adopted a new map in 2012 amid a series of unannounced meetings, disappearing emails and secret strategy sessions with campaign consultants who were shown some maps weeks before they became public.

Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis ordered a touch-up of two districts in the Orlando-Jacksonville area and lawmakers met in special session late last summer to comply. The parties swapped a couple of seats last November, but the districting still resulted in Republicans holding 17 seats and the Democrats with 10 – in a state where Democrats slightly outnumber Democrats in voter registration.

After a special session late last year, in which legislators complied with Lewis’ order and fixed what they denied breaking, Lewis allowed the 2014 elections to proceed with the amended district lines. But the League of Women Voters of Florida and some individual Floridians appealed, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled on July 9 that eight districts must be redone.

Essentially, the 5-2 ruling told legislators, “You’re still cheating.”

In fairness to legislators, this was the first time they had to comply with the Fair Districts Florida constitutional amendments. Those edicts forbid gerrymandering to protect incumbents or favor either party, while mandating compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its legal progeny, protecting minority voters’ right to elect candidates of their choosing.

The GOP legislative leadership fought to keep the amendments off the ballot – as Democrats would have, had they been in charge – claiming that the overlapping strictures of Fair Districts Florida were like telling legislators to line up alphabetically according to age, weight and height. It could not be done, they said, and when the amendments passed anyway, they set out to prove it.

We have a big stake in the redistricting.

One of the districts Lewis found fault with last year was the meandering Jacksonville-Orlando tract represented by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat who in 1992 was among the first three black members Florida had sent to Congress since Reconstruction. Brown sided with the Republicans in opposing Fair Districts Florida, perceiving that new districts would put her in political terra incognita.

Legislators kept her North-South alignment with some adjustments, spurning an alternative that would have created a new minority-access district across North Florida. That one would have split Leon County, creating an East-West axis that would have Brown running all the way to Chattahoochee – maybe ending the career of first-term U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee.

The majority order by Justice Barbara Pariente was very clear that the court likes the East-West district better than Brown’s North-South congressional area. Graham refuses to say what she might do, but the realignment might make it safer for her to run statewide, for the U.S. Senate.

The same situation confronts Republican Rep. David Jolly down in Tampa Bay. His district, like Brown’s, was one of the eight the high court ordered redrawn, and it is likely to become heavily Democratic. That will probably bring back ex-Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, while Jolly goes for the Senate.

But that’s for the politicians. And the political and racial composition is for the lawyers to debate. The legislators have a different duty, and the Supreme Court’s 100-day countdown is running.

House and Senate leaders can do it the hard way or the easy way. They can find new backrooms for more secret meetings and devise new ways to cheat, which will lead to yet another court smackdown. Or they can do it openly and honestly this time, which would restore some public respect for an institution badly in need of image rehab. We hope they will go the above-board route.

If the resulting Florida congressional delegation drops to 15-12 Republican, or 14-13, or even slightly Democratic after 2016, so be it.


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