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A Times Editorial

Fair districts, not self-interest

A Florida trial court has checked the arrogant abuse of power by the Legislature when it stuck a jumbled constitutional amendment on the November ballot to protect lawmakers' own interests. Now, hopefully, Amendment 7 will stay off the ballot and attention will be focused on two legitimate redistricting amendments.

A Tallahassee Circuit Court judge last week tossed Amendment 7, which legislative leaders concocted in an attempt to nullify two amendments placed on the ballot by citizens that would limit lawmakers' discretion in drawing legislative and congressional districts. Appellate courts should uphold Judge James Shelfer's ruling to ensure that voters aren't confused in November when they decide whether to reform a key component of the state's broken political process.

Shelfer said Amendment 7 was so confusing it took him three days to understand how it would dovetail with Amendments 5 and 6, which already have been approved by the Florida Supreme Court. It's no wonder. Amendment 7 was aimed solely at undermining the two other measures in case they were approved by 60 percent of voters.

Called "Fair Districts," Amendments 5 and 6 would prohibit the Legislature from gerrymandering political districts to benefit individual candidates or political parties starting in 2012, when the next maps will be drawn. The amendments would require lawmakers to draw compact and contiguous districts, preferably following the boundaries of cities and counties. The measures also bar maps that diminish opportunities for racial or language minorities to participate or elect representatives of their choice.

Such restraint on the Legislature's redistricting power is long overdue. Florida's current system has created districts overwhelmingly populated by voters of one political party or another. Sometimes they are drawn with a particular politician in mind, such as in 2002 when then-House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, wielded his power to draw a safe congressional district for himself. Such self-interest spawns political polarization and undermines good government. There is no incentive for bipartisan compromise because politicians need only appeal to their party's base to win re-election.

As PolitiFact Florida recently noted, only 15 times in the last six general elections has an incumbent of the 160-member Legislature been voted out of office. Republicans hold more than 60 percent of legislative seats, though GOP registration in Florida is just 36 percent, compared to 42 percent Democrat and 22 percent unaffiliated. The result is a Legislature, overwhelmingly Republican and conservative, that acts increasingly contrary to voters' wishes.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, rationalized Amendment 7 by arguing he was trying to forestall legal battles over the 2012 maps. He claims the amendments would undermine minority representation, and he pledged to appeal Shelfer's ruling. But he should lose, and so should two self-interested members of Congress who have filed a separate lawsuit against Amendments 5 and 6. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who is Hispanic, and Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who is African-American, claim the amendments will undermine minority-controlled districts. Neither the NAACP nor the overwhelming majority of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators buy that spin. Neither should the courts.

Fair districts, not self-interest 07/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 6:27pm]
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