The election Tuesday once again demonstrated why our state needs a new system for drawing voting district lines. Floridians voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by about 200,000 votes. But you could barely tell that the state had shifted course politically by looking at the results of congressional and legislative races. Only a handful of incumbents lost their seats, and it's not because the rest are all doing a great job. One key reason: Gerrymandering has gotten so sophisticated that the computer-generated boundaries of the legislative and congressional districts virtually ensure that incumbents stay in office unless there is a scandal.
To address this persistent problem, the government watchdog group Common Cause and a coalition of other public interest organizations have joined forces to try one more time to remove partisan considerations from the next redistricting process. Their efforts are the state's best chance of giving elections back to the voters.
The Common Cause-backed political committee, FairDistrictsFlorida.org, is pushing two amendments for the 2010 ballot that would direct the state Legislature to draw congressional and legislative districts in a way that does not favor an incumbent or a political party. If successful, the measures would affect redistricting after the next reapportionment following the 2010 Census.
The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments for the measures' preliminary approval on Thursday. The justices must find that they address a single subject and offer a ballot summary that is not misleading before sponsors can continue gathering signatures.
Not surprisingly, the loudest opposition is coming from the Republican-dominated Legislature, which sees the effort as a challenge to the party's hold on power. A lawyer representing the Legislature offered a variety of baseless technical arguments for the amendments' rejection, claiming that each criterion for district line-drawing was a unique subject. And to be fair, Democrats would be making the same argument if they still controlled the Legislature and the redistricting process.
Under the proposed measures, lawmakers would draw compact districts that use city or county lines and geographical boundaries when feasible. The districts would be made up of contiguous territory, and incumbency and political party affiliation could not be considered. Also, districts would be drawn in a way that protects the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities.
The point is to have districts that make sense for voters and their communities of interest, rather than politicians and their parties.
What we have now today is an electoral map that slices up cities and neighborhoods, with districts that snake through counties or have tentacles shooting out in order to capture enough like-minded voters to ensure a safe seat for an incumbent.
This precision line-drawning leads to results like Tuesday's, in which only a single incumbent state legislator lost — a House Democrat who had won a special election and served less than one term. Republicans lost two seats they had held — in races where there was no incumbent. So Democrats gained exactly one House seat and Republicans remain firmly in control, 76-44. The state Senate was unchanged, with Republicans in control 26-14.
In congressional races, three incumbents lost. But in two of those races, one involving Republican Tom Feeney of Oviedo and the other involving Democrat Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens, scandals rocked their campaigns. In the other, Republican Ric Keller of Orando lost because of changing demographics that resulted in a larger number of Hispanic Democrats in his district.
Common Cause was behind an effort in 2006 to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission through a constitutional amendment that voters deserved to consider. But the ballot language was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court for technical reasons.
This time, good-government advocates have kept it simple. And this time, voters should get the chance to create districts that could produce a Legislature and a congressional delegation that better reflects Florida.