Thursday, June 21, 2018

When half the voters are not heard

The battle over redistricting legislative seats in Florida has once again resolved itself in a way that limits the voice of many Floridians. Republicans have drawn House and Senate districts with the goal of maintaining their supermajorities in both houses and appear to have been successful in doing so.

The new districts are much better than the old ones and certainly more compact. Moreover, according to the State Supreme Court, they meet the FAIR constitutional amendment standards.

But that does not mean they reflect the will of all the people. Indeed it is curious that, in a state roughly split between Democrats and Republicans, both houses appear likely to retain GOP supermajorities.

So how has this come to be?

District lines are drawn by the party in power, and in Florida that means the process falls to Republicans. Most experts acknowledge that the party in power today has an enormous advantage in drawing these districts, because computer models allow the dominant party to draw lines that will secure their political advantage.

Democrats had hoped to have a greater say in drawing the districts so that they could rebuild the party's standing at the state level and ensure a full voice for its constituents. As it now stands, the party has a significant plurality of registered voters, but it needed a districting plan that makes it possible for them to be competitive in these legislative contests.

That did not happen as Republicans isolated black voters, perhaps the most important and certainly the most loyal Democratic constituency, into largely black districts. With most black voters excluded from the remaining districts, Republicans have been able to carve out a voting majority in them.

Such political machinations over districting are nothing new for Florida. Since World War II, efforts to control this process and thus the Legislature have been standard fare following every census. This was no less true in 1952 than it is in 2012.

Sixty years ago, the districting process was equally intense even though Democrats held all but one seat in the state Legislature. The conflict then took place between rural North Florida and rapidly growing urban South Florida over which region would set legislative policy and thus direction of the state.

Following World War II, Florida's population increased substantially, with more than 2 million new residents entering the state between 1945 to 1955. Much of that growth occurred in southeast Florida. Rural Democrats, fearful that Northeasterners who settled in southeast Florida had a different vision for the state, balked at redistricting the Legislature to reflect the growth of that region.

Their fears were not ill-considered. In the 1948 presidential election, Florida voters helped elect Harry Truman president, when South Florida residents overwhelming voted for him. By contrast, rural voters in Florida cast their ballots for Strom Thurmond, the candidate of the States' Rights Democratic Party, because of his commitment to segregation and state rights.

In the aftermath of the 1948 election, rural legislatures stonewalled reapportionment in Florida at every turn. By 1955, only 8 percent of Florida's voting population elected a majority of state representatives, and 17.1 percent elected a majority of state senators.

This skewed representation ensured a legislative majority in both houses that opposed the U.S. Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 and threatened Florida's future by pursuing extremist racial policies for the rest of the decade. Only the veto of Gov. LeRoy Collins prevented Florida from creating a private school system to avoid desegregation and jailing teachers who taught desegregated classes.

For the next 13 years, rural legislators blocked passage of reapportionment, despite the continued growth of urban South Florida. Finally in 1967, in Swann vs. Adams, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the reapportionment of Florida to reflect "one man, one vote." Within months a new Legislature was formed that oversaw the modernization of state government, the abandonment of segregation, and the rise of the Republican Party.

Today's political battle over reapportionment pales next to that of the 1950s and 1960s. But efforts to draw district lines to ensure the dominance of one political party and one political philosophy at the expense of the other is equally misplaced.

Even when districts meet new, tougher state constitutional muster, they remain suspect when they freeze out one party and, by extension, nearly half the voting populace. This is no less true today than it was in the 1950s.

David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida and author of "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans" (2007). He can be reached at [email protected]

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