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Push is on to halt gerrymandering in Florida

TAMPA — State Sen. Dave Aronberg's District 27 stretches coast to coast from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner's District 18 represents an area that covers East and South Tampa, south Pinellas County and a sliver of Manatee County.

Pat Kemp, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, calls those oddly drawn districts crazy.

"Interests in downtown St. Petersburg are going to be very different than interests in South Tampa and East Tampa," she said, in reference to Joyner's district.

Kemp has made changing the way Florida's state and congressional districts are drawn a top priority of the local Democratic Party.

They're helping a state coalition called Fair Districts Florida collect signatures supporting constitutional amendments that would guide the drawing of districts. They could be put to voters in 2010.

That's two years before the Republican-led state legislature is scheduled to start redrawing the boundaries.

Among other things, the amendments would require that voting districts be compact, contiguous, respect city and county boundaries whenever possible, and not favor incumbents or political parties.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the state's top Republican, said he would reserve judgment on the Fair Districts proposal until he learned more about it.

But he did say this: "It always seems like the party that's not in power doesn't like the way the districts are drawn."

That's true, admits Kemp.

"But to me it's basic good government," she said.

In January, the Florida Supreme Court approved the language for two measures, the first hurdle for putting the matter to voters. One addresses state legislative boundaries, the other congressional districts.

Now, supporters need to collect 676,811 signatures for each one to get them on the November 2010 ballot.

Voting districts are redrawn every 10 years, two years after the U.S. census is completed. The aim is to adjust district sizes to reflect changes in population, add districts if the population has grown and, according to the Voting Rights Act, make sure minority groups have a voice.

But critics say that in Florida, where state legislators control how districts are carved out, the process inevitably turns into a political exercise designed to benefit the party in power, a practice known as gerrymandering.

"They're choosing the voters instead of the voters choosing them," said Susan Smith, who is leading the petition drive in Hillsborough County. "This would give them general guidelines for dividing up those districts in fair ways."

Gerrymandering, Kemp said, has become particularly pronounced in the computer age, which allows a detailed analysis of voting behavior.

"They've been really able to do the kind of Draconian drawing that happens now," she said.

She uses Florida Senate Districts 18 and 27, represented by Democrats Joyner and Aronburg, as examples. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, also a Democrat, has a district similar to Joyner's.

And consider Temple Terrace, a city of less than 7 square miles, with a population of about 20,000 people, has three people representing it in Congress: Castor, and Republicans Adam Putnam and Gus Bilirakis.

Kemp says that when she is out on the street collecting signatures, whenever she pulls out maps showing oddly drawn districts she gets nods of understanding.

"People don't like it," she said. "They think it's more of the kind of politics they don't like and they're offended by."

Castor and Joyner did not return calls for comment on redistricting reform. In an e-mail, Bilirakis said it's up to voters to decide how they want them drawn.

State Rep. Rich Glorioso, a Republican from Plant City, said voters in Temple Terrace, with their three representatives, have an advantage: They have more than one member of Congress to turn to for help with issues.

Most states have guidelines that at least encourage compact districts and limits on crossing city boundaries too many times, said Jeffrey Wice, a Washington, D.C., Democratic redistricting attorney.

"It can be done by statute, constitution, or simple rules," he said.

Fair Districts Florida chairman Thom Rumberger represented the Republican Party when Florida districts were drawn in 1992.

"I was a lawyer, and I did my job," Rumberger said.

But looking back, it bothers him to see a district that runs from Jacksonville to Orlando, and some packed with Republican voters to keep them in the hands of the GOP.

"The more familiar you get with the system, the more you realize the system is wrong," he said.

It's not a practice exclusive to Republicans, he said. Democrats did the same thing in 1982, when they controlled the Florida Legislature.

"It will happen for time immemorial until the system is changed, until there's an amendment that says it won't be based on party," he said. "Even then there will probably be some problems with it. But it will be as fair as we can make it."

Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.

What the ballot measures say

Fair Districts Florida is collecting signatures on petitions in support of two ballot measures. The following is the proposed ballot language:

PETITION 1: Standards for drawing congressional district boundaries.

Congressional districts may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.

PETITION 2: Standards for drawing legislative district boundaries.

Legislative districts may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.

Push is on to halt gerrymandering in Florida 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 11:07pm]
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