Editorial: Legislature's map gets it wrong again

Editorial Board | Herald Tribune | 01/10/2016

Six days after Circuit Judge George Reynolds rejected a Florida Senate redistricting map, today the auditor general will randomly assign numbers to districts on a map approved by that judge.

The numbering doesn't mean the legal wrangling is over: The Florida Supreme Court must still approve new districts, and Senate President Andy Gardiner and Majority Leader Bill Galvano are considering whether to appeal Reynolds' ruling.

The ruling by Reynolds, whose 2nd Circuit Court is based in Tallahassee, dealt yet another blow to the Legislature's efforts to draw districts consistent with constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010.

The Fair Districts amendments were intended to prevent legislators from drawing lines favoring political parties or incumbents. (One amendment covered elections of the U.S. House of Representatives; the other governed districts for Florida's Senate and House of Representatives.)

The amendments were in effect for the creation of districts used in the 2012 elections. But the congressional and Senate maps were challenged by the Florida League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other members of a statewide coalition.

Last July, the Florida Supreme Court upheld Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' ruling that eight of 27 congressional districts violated the constitutional amendment.

Unfortunately, the Legislature and Lewis subsequently approved — with the coalition of plaintiffs in support — a congressional map that separates Sarasota County into two districts. (Currently, all of Sarasota County is in one district, with nearly all of Manatee County.)

The proposed congressional map, subject to state Supreme Court review, would place north Sarasota County, all of Manatee and about 13 percent of southern Hillsborough County in a new District 16. South Sarasota County would be lumped into a sprawling, nine-county District 17. This maps disregards the regional, mutual interests of Manatee and Sarasota. It fails to respect political boundaries; what's more, District 17 is not compact, as the amendment requires.

Senators conceded that their 2012 districts were flawed and attempted to draw new ones. The subsequent attempt was unsuccessful, if not bizarre. A map selected by Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, was submitted to Judge Reynolds, who rejected it last week. The judge concluded that the map was formulated "to favor the Republican Party and incumbents." It was further flawed because it also split Sarasota County into two districts.

Fortunately, the Senate map favored by the plaintiffs would keep Sarasota County in one district; Reynolds chose it for submission to the Supreme Court.

Creating voting maps that are constitutional and consistent with state and federal laws is complex and difficult. Furthermore, Senate leaders deserve the opportunity to review Reynolds' ruling. But we believe that the Senate map endorsed by the judge would better serve Sarasota County and our region.

What's more, the court cases underscore the need for Florida to consider an alternative to redistricting by the Legislature. Judge Reynolds' observation that Galvano, who is widely respected, had a political interest in a map that favored Republicans suggests to us that meeting the voter-approved conditions of the 2010 constitutional amendments may be impossible under the status quo.

The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled last year that Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission, created by voters, is constitutional. In a 2012 opinion on redistricting, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente recommended that our state “seriously examine the adoption of an independent apportionment commission.” She was correct.

The Florida Legislature could propose a constitutional amendment, for voters to consider, to create a similar commission. So could a state Constitution Revision Commission, which will next convene in 2017. Or voters could launch an initiative through a petition drive. Whatever the approach, it's time to examine fundamental change.

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