Floridians' chance to curb partisan gerrymanders is once again in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court. After decades of partisan abuse of the redistricting process, citizens simply want the chance to vote on two ballot initiatives to end the practice that for decades has enabled politicians to choose their voters instead of voters choosing politicians. But politicians aren't about to give up that advantage without a fight — and that fight is now before the state's highest court.
The idea behind gerrymandering is simple. Those in power redraw election districts to benefit themselves and their political party, packing most voters from the opposition into only a few districts. This creates "safe seats" for them and marginalizes the opposition.
Florida's congressional districts perfectly illustrate the corrosive effects of gerrymandering. Democrats and Republicans alike, from former Gov. Bob Graham to former State Comptroller Bob Milligan, point out that Florida has fewer competitive elections than almost any state in the union. In 2008, for example, only two of the state's 25 U.S. House races were decided by a margin of less than 10 points. Even in 2006 — remember the anti-incumbent backlash? — only one of Florida's members of Congress lost. And more than 10 percent of the state's congressional seats are so politically safe that incumbents rarely even draw an opponent.
Creating districts that lack any meaningful political competition means an officeholder's only challenge will occur in the primary. When the real election becomes who wins the primary, candidates pander to their base. This produces politicians who lean further left or right, shrinking the political middle (where most of us are). Think of the shrinking number of officeholders today who reach across party lines — in Washington or Tallahassee — to work on legislative solutions to very serious problems. This is a direct result of extreme partisan gerrymandering.
Of course, districts have to be redrawn following every census, and with any plan, it's possible, even likely, that some group is going to gain and another is going to lose. For that reason, the most promising proposals for redistricting reform focus not on whether we redraw the lines, but on who does the drawing and on how they do it.
Yet in state after state where redistricting reform efforts have been proposed in the Legislature, bills have died a quiet death, often without even a committee hearing in state capitols. The only real way to bring about such reform is through the initiative process — where voters (not politicians) can decide to put an end to extreme gerrymandering by self-interested politicians.
In 2008, California voters approved a referendum that gives the responsibility for legislative redistricting to an independent citizens' commission. Hopefully later this year, Floridians will get a chance to vote on their own reform initiative.
Unlike the California reform, Florida Amendments 5 and 6 don't take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature; they simply prohibit excessive political gerrymandering — favoring incumbents or one political party over the other. But you'd think from the strong opposition of some federal and state officeholders that Florida's politicians were being asked to give up their firstborn. Not only have they started a misinformation campaign about the proposed reforms, they even offered an initiative of their own in an effort to derail the real reform measure by confusing voters.
And while the Florida Supreme Court has already ruled that Florida Amendments 5 and 6 meet the requirements of state law, a lawsuit was recently filed attacking the initiative and, if successful, would stop Florida's voters from getting to decide the redistricting reform issue for themselves this fall.
We need to change the broken redistricting system that puts almost no restraints on political gerrymandering and lets politicians manipulate lines to protect themselves and their parties and bludgeon their opponents. Redistricting reform isn't going to come easy. It's going to take a sustained effort from citizens like Fair Districts Florida, because it won't come from politicians.
The opportunity is at hand to put some meaningful rules in place that will force politicians to put voters, not incumbents, first when it comes to redistricting. Let's hope the politicians aren't successful in killing off Amendments 5 and 6, Florida's best chance for meaningful reform. The State Supreme Court will decide the matter of the legal challenges in the coming weeks and then, ideally, Floridians will have the opportunity to decide the matter of gerrymandering once and for all.
Leon W. Russell is the past president and current chairman of the legislative committee of the Florida NAACP. J. Gerald Hebert is the executive director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center and represented Florida's congressional Democrats in the post-2000 redistricting cycle and the U.S. Justice Department in the post-1990 round of Florida redistricting.