Give Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz credit. After weeks of public criticism about the Legislature's deliberate pace in drawing new political maps, the Republican senator from Niceville has proposed amending the state Constitution to allow the next redrawing to occur a full year before the general election. That's the first indication that anyone in Republican-controlled Tallahassee gets it: Voters are sick of a redistricting process that favors incumbents.
Gaetz and his House counterpart, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, were caught flat-footed this summer at what were supposed to be routine public hearings on drawing boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. Instead, the leaders of their respective chambers' redistricting committees have seen the sessions devolve into public outrage, culminating in Pinellas County this week.
Republican lawmakers have no one but themselves to blame for failing to read the body politic. After spending the past two decades exploiting the redistricting process to accumulate an overwhelming majority of state legislative and congressional seats in a state where voter registration favors Democrats over Republicans, they have been tone-deaf to the building public backlash.
The increasingly conservative Republican leaders in Tallahassee refused to heed the message of Fair Districts, the two state citizen petitions voters overwhelmingly approved in November that for the first time put parameters on how legislative and congressional districts should be drawn. Arrogantly, legislative leaders aimed to thwart passage of the measures until the Florida Supreme Court stopped them. And now House Speaker Dean Cannon continues to fight the provision dealing with the drawing of congressional districts, in effect using Florida tax dollars to fight a policy voters approved at the ballot box.
Against that backdrop, Gaetz, Weatherford and their fellow committee members — who are actually seeking public input earlier than was done 10 years ago — have been met with distrust from an increasingly savvy public annoyed by political gerrymandering. The lack of even a preliminary set of maps is perceived as further obfuscation.
Traditionally, Florida's Legislature has never released public maps this early. The state Constitution dictates that lawmakers can't even consider a final vote on maps until January at the earliest. Lawmakers have interpreted that to mean that's when their formal negotiations will begin, not end, and aim to approve maps in March. But that timing has real consequences every 10 years when it compresses the election cycle, with non-incumbent candidates uncertain until the very end if they live in a district they want to run in.
Now Gaetz accepts that tradition should change. As the anticipated next Senate president, he and Weatherford, the anticipated next House speaker, have the power to do something about it. For this redistricting cycle, the pair should order preliminary maps be drawn before the new year and hold additional town hall meetings after doing so. But for a better Florida, they should push their colleagues to put a measure on the 2012 ballot to change the state Constitution to shift the entire redistricting time line in 2021 and beyond. That would show Republicans finally have gotten the message.