Florida Lawmakers and the Thwarted Will of the People

The state's voters want to reform redistricting, but the legislature has paid little attention.
by | January 13, 2014

The gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts is a cancer on democracy. It feeds cynicism and alienates voters from their elected representatives. So it might seem that Florida voters' overwhelming approval in 2010 of two constitutional amendments aimed at reforming the redistricting process was a big step in the right direction.

It was, but so far it's had little impact. In drawing up district boundaries after the 2010 census, the Florida legislature pretty much ignored the will of the voters.

The language of the two amendments, which respectively addressed boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, is virtually identical. They provide that district boundaries not be drawn so as to favor any incumbent or political party; that the rights of racial and language minorities to participate in the political process be respected; and that "districts shall be as nearly equal in population as is practicable; districts shall be compact; and districts shall, where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries."

But if you take a look at the boundaries drawn by the legislature after the 2010 decennial census, it becomes pretty clear that lawmakers paid little regard to the limitations the voters wanted to place upon their redistricting power. Consider, for example, the 5th Congressional District, which might be one of the most gerrymandered in the country. It is a long, narrow band that snakes up through several counties and includes parts of Orlando, Gainesville and Jacksonville. It is anything but "compact."

The League of Women Voters, among others, looked at the maps emerging from Florida's redistricting process, drew the same conclusion that I have about the impact of the constitutional amendments and sued the legislature for violating the Florida constitution. The ongoing litigation took a dramatic turn recently when the Florida Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling saying that the immunity that legislators have from civil litigation in relation to their decisions was limited in this case -- that the need to enforce the anti-gerrymandering provisions approved by the voters trumped legislative privilege. (In another twist in the case, a week after the court's ruling that the legislators had to turn over documents related to the redistricting, the Tampa Bay Times reported that while legislators had turned over thousands of documents, they had destroyed other records related to the redistricting process.)

Florida's 5th Congressional District  
Florida's 5th Congressional District
This case is hugely important. Whatever the issue you are concerned about -- whether it's income inequality, economic development, immigration, the environment, education policy or anything else -- fixing the redistricting process is a key part of the solution. Millions of Americans believe that government is not responsive to the concerns of ordinary folks. That's why they support redistricting reforms like the ones they voted for in Florida.

Eliminating gerrymandering is a better way to improve the political process than other approaches such as term limits and changes to campaign-finance rules. Term limits carry all kinds of negatives. They are anti-democratic in the sense that they prevent voters from keeping incumbents who they think are doing a good job, and they are unnecessary if election districts haven't been rigged to protect incumbents. And while disclosure of campaign donations is good, various kinds of campaign-finance limits are fraught with enforcement problems and often serve to tilt the playing field toward candidates with great personal wealth.

Getting redistricting right allows voters a better chance of holding candidates accountable in open and fair campaigns about issues that matter the most to the people who live in a district. The public knows this, and that's why voters have supported redistricting reform through initiative processes in California as well as in Florida. In California, the reform was combined with a switch to open primaries and seems to be working well. (The legislature's favorability rating has actually improved significantly in the last year.) Let's hope things eventually play out that way in Florida as well.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com  | 

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