Will ‘fair districts’ in Florida lead to a fairer outcome?

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Six years ago, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments with the catchy title of “Fair Districts” that promised to end the political games that surrounded drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Due to expensive court battles and standoffs in the Florida Legislature, this year’s election will mark the first time the full effort to end gerrymandering will be in place.

As Election Day nears, however, it’s becoming apparent that the changes have not caused any major disruptions politically. Republicans are expected to retain control of the state Legislature. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation will probably shrink, but the GOP will likely remain in the majority.

“We never expected this to be a revolutionary change, it was an evolutionary change,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida State League of Women Voters, whose organization challenged in court how legislators enacted the standards.

There have been some shake-ups as a result of the amendments finally kicking in: Two incumbent members of Congress, both Democrats, will be leaving office this year due in part to their reshaped districts. And several Republican members are also in tight battles that could result in their defeat Tuesday.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was once a Republican but is now running as a Democrat, may revive his political career if he wins a redrawn Democratic-leaning seat in Pinellas County.

Florida has long been divided politically, and has emerged again as a key battleground in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, carried the state in 2004, but President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won the next two elections. Critics have long complained that the districts don’t reflect the close divide of the electorate.

Florida voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved the “Fair Districts” amendments which mandated that legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. The group that backed the amendment was financed largely by unions and donors aligned with Democrats.

Legislators adopted new maps in 2012 that they said followed the guidelines, but a coalition of groups sued. The legal battles resulted in several key rulings, including one where the state Supreme Court ruled that GOP operatives had “tainted” efforts to draw up congressional districts.

Legislators deadlocked over how to respond, leaving the final map put in place by the court. A separate battle over state senate districts also resulted in a circuit court judge saying that legislators had acted with “partisan intent.”

The final result, which came after the Legislature spent more than $12 million in taxpayer money fighting the lawsuits, means that congressional and state senate districts were put in place by judges not legislators. State House seats adopted by legislators were not challenged.

Matthew Isbell, a data consultant who tracked redistricting and has worked for Democratic-leaning organizations, said while the changes “have put more seats in play” it will not result in Democrats taking back either chamber in the Legislature. Currently the GOP holds a 26-14 edge in the 40-member state Senate that could narrow some. Isbell predicts the 17-10 split in the congressional delegation will also shrink, but Republicans will still be in the majority. Part of it, he said, is due to the GOP’s fundraising advantage in the state.

“It’s a long game for Democrats,” Isbell said.

Ellen Freidin, a South Florida attorney and one of the main architects of Fair Districts, said she is satisfied with the outcome. She said because of the power of incumbents “you can’t judge the merits on one cycle.” But Freidin maintains there has been more competition for legislative and congressional seats this year and more people have chosen to run for office.

“This idea has always been about the rights of people of the state of Florida to choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing voters,” Freidin said.

Top Republicans, however, don’t share the enthusiasm.

State Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who led House redistricting efforts last year, says that the “Fair Districts” amendments are nearly impossible to implement and that all it has done has shifted power over to judges who can also act in a partisan manner.

“Anytime something has `fair’ in it, it’s anything but fair,” said Oliva, who is line to become House speaker in 2018. “The only thing we did with Fair Districts is we diluted one branch of government.”

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