Republicans enjoy a super majority on the Hillsborough County Commission, and they look intent on keeping it. That's the impression the U.S. Justice Department should take from the new election boundaries that commissioners approved this week. The new lines are good for some areas, as they bring like-minded neighborhoods under the same umbrella. But the GOP majority weakened the clout of urban and Hispanic residents. Washington needs to examine a map that looks to be more about disenfranchising minorities and progressives than apportioning power fairly.
The seven-member board is composed of three countywide commissioners and four who serve single-member districts. The board redraws the district lines every 10 years to reflect population changes as recorded by the U.S. census. The goal is to draw district boundaries that are of equal size and that encompass areas of similar interests or other commonality. The county has also drawn an inner-city district to satisfy federal requirements for minority representation.
Commissioners considered 10 proposals and approved so-called Map G. On the plus side, it moves some neighborhoods in south county out of an urban Tampa district and into the more appropriate suburban District 4. The proposal also leaves intact the central Tampa district that black voters have used to win a seat in county government. But these are only consolations. The existing lines are nothing to brag about, and commissioners failed to address the gerrymandering underlying the new maps in play.
The best option would have been to collapse the two Tampa-area districts, 1 and 3, into tidy boundaries that gave residents in the urban areas the clout they deserve. Suburban District 2 should start at a clean line north of Tampa, while District 4 should include the east county communities of Brandon and Valrico. The farming community of Ruskin has nothing to do with the ivy-covered lair of Palma Ceia. Map G is a land grab that carves up similar neighborhoods for the sake of steering suburban voters to Republican candidates.
Hispanic activists wanted the board to adopt a map that would boost their chances of winning a commission seat. But the issue never needed to revolve around gerrymandering. The fairest map would have recognized the growth of Hispanics in the Tampa area — 71 percent over the last decade — by making District 1 a largely urban boundary that took in Tampa's western core. No group in Hillsborough has grown as Hispanics have over the last 10 years. Yet in a twisted outcome, the map the board approved to account for population change actually punishes Hispanics by diluting their strength in the very neighborhoods where they live.
Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties under federal supervision under the Voting Rights Act due to past practices that were found discriminatory to Hispanic voters; the county must submit its new district map to the Justice Department for approval. Federal officials need to closely examine a map that waters down the clout of urban voters and minorities. There is a way to draw fair districts, and this isn't it.