FLORIDA CAN BE A TOSS-UP when it comes to statewide elections, but its legislative and congressional races are almost never competitive. The simple reason: The Legislature draws the districts to favor specific political parties and protect incumbents. Now two constitutional amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot give Floridians a historic opportunity to level the playing field by rewriting the rules for drawing political districts. For better democracy, the Times recommends approval of Amendments 5 and 6.
Drawing political districts to protect political power is nothing new. Before Republicans took control of the Legislature in 1996, Democrats were just as guilty. But mapping software and demographic databases over the years made it possible to know block-by-block whether a district will lean Republican or Democratic. Legislative leaders have exploited that to draw more safe Republican districts during the once-a-decade redistricting for the Legislature and Congress.
The result: Though Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008, not a single Republican incumbent lost in the Legislature that year. Republicans hold more than 60 percent of legislative seats but have only 36 percent of state voter registration, compared to 41 percent Democratic and 19 percent nonaffiliated.
If 60 percent of voters approve Amendments 5 and 6, dubbed "Fair Districts," legislators would be prohibited from gerrymandering districts to favor themselves, friends or their political parties during the 2012 reapportionment process. The amendments would require compact and contiguous districts, preferably ones that follow the same boundaries as cities and counties. They would prohibit districts that favor or harm specific political parties and bar maps that diminish opportunities for racial or language minorities to participate or elect representatives of their choice.
Opponents — including legislative leaders and the powerful business interests that fund their campaigns — contend the process will lead to court battles and undercut minority representation. But their opposition is really rooted in self-interest. Redistricting maps almost always end up in court. And the majority of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and the NAACP believe the citizen amendments are the best way to protect minority interests.
The lack of competitive elections has led to hyper-partisanship from both Republicans and Democrats, because few incumbents fear being held accountable by the voters. It's also indirectly fueled the current corruption in Tallahassee, where both a former House speaker and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida are under indictment.
Florida is a purple state, not red or blue. Its elected lawmakers in the Legislature and Congress should mirror that diversity and work together for a state and a nation that are neither far left nor far right. The Times recommends voters approve Amendments 5 and 6.