The Florida Supreme Court opened the door last week to greater accountability of elected officials when it approved for the ballot a citizens' initiative to change how political districts are drawn. Now supporters and Florida voters need to make sure this important reform comes to pass.
The current system for drawing legislative and congressional districts is broken. State lawmakers have used the once-a-decade process to draw safe seats for themselves and members of Congress. The result is incumbents are rarely threatened, as evidenced in November when a big shift in voter sentiment translated to little change in the partisan makeup of the Florida Legislature and the state's congressional delegation.
In response, a coalition of groups have banded together as "FairDistrictsFlorida.org" to push a pair of ballot measures aimed at outlawing gerrymandering in reapportionment for both Florida's legislative and congressional seats.
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court — rejecting the Legislature's arguments to the contrary — unanimously agreed the ballot language for the two measures was clear, one of the hurdles to getting on the ballot. The group now needs to collect 676,811 signatures for each measure, hopefully in time for the November 2010 ballot.
The proposals would require state lawmakers to draw districts that are compact and conform if possible to current political or geographic boundaries — so that cities and counties are not split apart and districts don't snake along a single block. No incumbent or party could be intentionally favored.
In a companion ruling, the court also set aside the required financial impact statement that put the cost of implementing the amendments at "millions of dollars." That statement, written by a team of state analysts, would have appeared on the ballot.
The Financial Impact Estimating Conference said its cost estimate was so high because it expected a sharp increase in court challenges to the districts drawn under the new standards. But the high court appropriately dismissed this as "fatally misleading." Justice Fred Lewis, writing for a 4 - 3 majority, said that no additional costs would be incurred, since litigation already routinely results after the decennial reapportionment and it presumes that the Legislature won't duly follow the new guidelines.
"Scare tactics and vague, unsupported predictions of financial disaster have no place in the constitutional-amendment process," Lewis wrote.
Two recent appointees of Gov. Charlie Crist, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, joined Justice Charlie Wells in the dissent. They did not see a role for the high court in trying to determine the general accuracy of the estimating conference's conclusions — a view that invites partisan attempts to doom citizen initiatives by burdening them with outlandish cost estimates.
The hope of the amendments' sponsors is if the voters pass the constitutional amendments in November 2010, the changes will be in place for the next redistricting in 2012. Bringing fairness to political districts will make elected officials more accountable and give voters substantially more power over the direction of the state. It can't happen soon enough.