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A chance for Floridians to redraw rigged districts

What are incumbent state lawmakers afraid of? Could it be … competition?

Take Dean Cannon, who represents the northern portion of Orange County in the state House. The Republican was first elected to the Legislature in 2004. In that contest featuring no incumbent, the Winter Park attorney and former student body president of the University of Florida raised close to $250,000 for his campaign.

Cannon's Democratic opponent raised just $3,125, and Cannon won the Republican-leaning district with 57 percent of the vote. Since that time, he has not faced another Democrat.

Yet in 2008, the prolific rainmaker and speaker-designate continued to call up potential donors and attend fundraisers, raking in nearly $600,000 to defend his seat.

Cannon's worthy opponent in last year's general election? Thomas Kelly, founder of the British Reformed Sectarian Party of Florida, which Kelly personally established in 2003. There is no evidence Kelly expected to win. His main platform was protesting a federal court ruling upholding the right of major political parties in the state to require candidates to sign loyalty oaths to run in their primaries.

The Sunshine State has some 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but Republicans dominate the Legislature because of the overtly partisan way legislative districts are drawn.

There is little interparty competition in state legislative elections. In 2006, only six of 20 state Senate seats that were up for election were contested by candidates from both major parties, and only 36 of the 120 House seats had both Republican and Democratic candidates on the ballot. In 2008, the trend continued. Today, because of partisan gerrymandering, less than two dozen of Florida's 140 legislative races are considered competitive.

This lack of interparty competition is not limited to Florida. Nationwide in 2008, roughly 40 percent of the 5,773 regularly scheduled partisan legislative contests had only one major party candidate on the ballot.

According to campaign finance figures calculated by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in roughly a dozen states less than 10 percent of all legislative races were competitive when looking at campaign contributions collected by major party candidates.

Only 4 percent of legislative races in Georgia had competitive spending; in Arkansas, California, Florida and South Carolina, only 7 percent of all legislative races had comparable spending by the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Clearly, Florida is not alone when it comes to gerrymandered, uncompetitive legislative districts. But it's worse here.

As the past three tightly contested presidential elections in the Sunshine State make clear, voters at the polls are closely divided along partisan lines. Yet, this partisan competition is completely diluted when it comes to state legislative seats.

The good news is, Florida voters will likely have the opportunity to inject some competition back into legislative races next November. Fair Districts Florida, a nonpartisan issue committee, is sponsoring two ballot measures that will establish fair and impartial standards for redrawing state and congressional district boundaries every decade.

Voters should keep a skeptical eye on those self-serving politicians of both parties who are trying to subvert the petition drive and convince voters that more competition will make matters worse.

Don't buy it, voters. Unless, of course, you're happy with not having a choice on Election Day.

Daniel A. Smith is interim director of the Political Campaigning Program at the University of Florida, and the co-author of the forthcoming second edition of State and Local Politics: Institutions and Reform.

A chance for Floridians to redraw rigged districts 11/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 27, 2009 8:51pm]
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