In a matter of days two hurdles to holding an orderly election in November in Florida disappeared, clearing the way for candidates for 27 congressional districts, 40 state Senate seats and 120 state House seats to fire up their campaigns. Both hurdles involved the Legislature’s redistricting process, which for the first time was guided by two anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments overwhelmingly approved by Florida voters in 2010.
It took the state Senate two tries to draw a redistricting map that met the state’s new Fair Districts standards, according to the Florida Supreme Court, which on Friday approved the second effort. The justices rejected a challenge by the Democratic Party and several voter groups. That doesn’t mean the new Senate districts are as fair as they could be. It just means that they meet constitutional requirements this time around. The new map still contains protection for some incumbents.
The justices might have explored those protective lines further but, as Justice Barbara Pariente pointed out in a separate, concurring opinion, there wasn’t enough time to deliberate any longer without disrupting the election cycle. After lamenting the time constraints put on the court to review new maps, she added, “If it is this court’s role to be the guardian of the constitution’s intent, I believe that changes must be made to the process to ensure that the purpose of the [redistricting] amendment — to take politics out of the apportionment equation — can be fully realized.”
Her recommendation? The state should establish an independent commission to do the mandated redistricting every 10 years. Justice Pariente is dead on. Having state lawmakers redraw their own and their fellow party members’ districts is like ushering the fox straight into the chicken coop. While the new redistricting standards have made it impossible to be blatantly partisan and self-serving, they can’t completely put an end to the political protectionism in carving out safe districts.
The second election hurdle fell Monday when the U.S. Justice Department said the new state and congressional district maps do not appear to violate the federal Voting Rights Act in the five counties with a history of violating minority voters’ rights: Monroe, Hendry, Hillsborough, Collier and Hardee.
That’s an important nod of approval, but questions remain at Justice about new rules guiding voter registration imposed by the Legislature, and rightly so. Groups such as the League of Women Voters say the new rules impinge on impartial groups seeking to increase participation, particularly minority voters.
Also on Monday a Leon County judge rejected the Democratic Party’s argument that the congressional map should be put on hold while it contests several districts’ boundaries. The case will go forward, but congressional candidates will run in the districts approved by the Supreme Court.
The quick succession of opinions are good for voters as well as candidates. That avoids a long, hot summer of confusion about where state and congressional representatives’ boundaries begin and end.
The first reapportionment process under Fair Districts guidelines was far from perfect, but it was much better than previous remapping processes. One thing is clear, however: Legislators should heed Justice Pariente’s advice and take themselves out of the process by creating an independent commission to redraw political maps. The next test for the new maps comes in November, when voters get to make their choices.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, which has be fighting for fair districts for many years, had this to say in an email to members:
Although the League is not entirely pleased with the resulting maps, in the words of LWVF Redistricting Chair Pam Goodman, “we believe this is justice delayed, not justice denied, and we will continue to explore all legal options to impact these maps beyond the 2012 election cycle.” ….
Our efforts have been the culmination of over 70 years of diligence on the part of the Florida League — in fact, political gerrymandering was the very first issue that LWV members identified as a problem when they organized in Florida in 1939. …
Even though we believe that the final maps could be better, LWVF President Deirdre Macnab reminds us that our work has made a difference: “Florida League members should take satisfaction in knowing that, because of our hard work in support of the FairDistricts amendments, the political playing field will be more level than it was before, more cities and counties will remain whole within districts, and more districts will be geographically compact.” That is a real accomplishment!
So, while there is still work ahead, and perhaps more litigation between now and 2014, we are proud of what we’ve done and we will continue to preserve the League’s legacy of fighting for fairness.
Editorial © 2012 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.