Tuesday, February 03, 2009

LAWMAKERS FIGHT ATTEMPT TO STOP DISTRICT-RIGGING

LAWMAKERS FIGHT ATTEMPT TO STOP DISTRICT-RIGGING
Daytona Beach News-Journal Editorial -- February 3, 2009


Every 10 years, the Florida Constitution requires the Legislature to work together to undermine the concept of "one person, one vote."

That's not exactly how the constitution puts it, of course. But that's how it always works out. The party in current control of the Legislature does its level best to re-draw state legislative and congressional districts in its own favor, while members of the minority party grumble helplessly or collude to protect their own districts. Every time, lawmakers draw district lines that wriggle and squiggle all over the place, dividing cities and even neighborhoods to consolidate political power and protect incumbents.

It's not surprising, then, to see lawmakers mounting a vigorous defense to a pair of proposed constitutional amendments aimed at forcing a degree of fairness into the redistricting process.

On their face, the amendments -- one dealing with state legislative districting, the other with congressional -- set fairly modest goals. If approved by voters, the amendments would bar the Legislature from drawing districts to "favor or disfavor" a political party or incumbent. They would require lawmakers to consider racial equality and draw compact districts that respect existing community boundaries. (Under current law, districts must only be "contiguous" -- that is, in one piece. But the pieces can be connected by strips one yard wide and several miles long, or jump across water bodies, and still pass legal muster.)

In a spirited attempt to convince the state Supreme Court to strike the language from the ballot, lawyers representing the Legislature represented those goals as impossible to accomplish. There are too many conflicts, they whined. It takes away our authority.

They were shoddy arguments from a group that's supposed to put the needs of the people they represent first. And the Supreme Court saw through it, deciding that the amendments met the tests of ballot-worthiness.

Florida's method of redrawing districts should change, because the current setup deprives too many voters of choice. The Legislature finalized the last redistricting plan in 2002, and it included many "safe" districts that favored one party so heavily that the other didn't mount a challenge. In the 2004 election, only a third of Florida's 120 House seats was contested by both major parties. Most of those were "open" seats where the incumbent decided not to run, or was term-limited out. Ninety incumbents were re-elected that year, and only two incumbents lost to members of the opposing party.

Communities lose their clout when they're fractured among several districts, and many find themselves represented by legislators who live an hour's drive or more away. That's the case for local constituents of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, whose sprawling district was drawn to include a large number of black voters. Her district is headquartered in Jacksonville but swoops over to Gainesville, then reaches through west Volusia County into west Orlando.

The amendments don't go as far as they should. The wording of the amendments gives lawmakers plenty of wiggle room to shift district lines to favor themselves or their parties. A better solution would take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature altogether, passing it on to an independent commission.

That makes the Legislature's knee-jerk legal reaction even more disappointing: Lawmakers don't even want to pay lip service to the idea of fairly apportioned districts. That says something about their respect for the voters they are supposed to be serving.

To learn more about redistricting and try your hand at the difficult job of apportionment, visit FairDistrictsFlorida.org.

    

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