Florida has been dominated for so long by one political party — first Democrats and now Republicans — it's hard to imagine what true competitive elections for Congress and the Legislature might look like. And it appears no one in Tallahassee wants voters to find out.
In a shameless, self-interested ploy, Republican legislative leaders and a few Democrats are rushing to try to thwart a pair of November ballot measures that would level the playing field. The citizen amendments, which would need approval by 60 percent of voters, would change the rules for drawing political districts. Now some lawmakers want to put their own constitutional amendment on the ballot in hopes of undermining the citizen amendments and maintaining the status quo. It's an indefensible power grab that would confuse voters and serve no interest other than incumbent politicians.
Amendments 5 and 6, dubbed "Fair Districts," would prohibit the state's legislators from gerrymandering districts to favor themselves, friends or their political parties in the once-a-decade reapportionment process that occurs next in 2012. The amendments would require lawmakers to draw 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.
But legislators are not embracing this progressive change that would help end the polarization in Tallahassee and Washington by creating more competitive political districts. Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, is leading a push to put a third measure, SJR 2288 and HJR 7231, on November's ballot that would create enough loopholes so legislative leaders could justify drawing districts however they please.
Haridopolos is expected to be the Senate president during the next redistricting and claims he is just trying to save the state a lengthy court battle over the 2012 maps. He also contends the citizen amendments would undermine minority representation. Both arguments are specious. Redistricting maps almost always end up in court. And the overwhelming majority of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and the NAACP believe the citizen amendments, not the Legislature's plan, are the best way to protect minority interests.
No Republican incumbent lost his or her seat in the Legislature in 2008, even as Barack Obama carried the state in the presidential contest. What's more, Republicans hold more than 60 percent of legislative seats but only have 39 percent of state voter registration, compared to 42 percent Democrat and 19 percent nonaffilliated.
Such safe seats give politicians little incentive in Tallahassee and Washington to work in a bipartisan manner to produce good legislation. That ultimately serves no one but the special interests who bankroll the candidates' campaigns.
The real threat feared by Haridopolos and other entrenched interests — and not just Republicans — is that Florida would finally get political districts that reflect all the complexity inherent in the nation's fourth-largest state. Election outcomes should be decided by voters, not predetermined by the way the districts are drawn.