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Redistricting: Redrawing better districts for Florida by law

They said it couldn't be done.

Long before voters approved changes to the rules for drawing new congressional and legislative districts, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and I sat in front of a blank state map on a computer screen. We colored in a few districts by clicking the computer mouse, but Haridopolos insisted it would be impossible to draw maps by following the constitutional amendments that would be on the November 2010 ballot.

It turns out it can be done.

The initial maps drawn by state legislators are reasonable first drafts and certainly an improvement over the way maps were drawn 10 or 20 years ago. The Senate's proposed congressional districts, for example, are more compact in many areas. The House's proposed state House maps place so many incumbents in the same districts that some skeptics question whether it is a good-faith effort or a misdirection play.

There is plenty of room for improvement in all of the maps, of course. Too many districts still link communities that have too little in common. Too many counties such as Polk and Orange are split into too many congressional districts. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald analysis of the Senate's proposed state Senate districts shows eight districts with more than 50 percent Democrats, suggesting the Republican-controlled chamber is packing Democrats into a handful of districts so Republicans still can easily control a solid majority of the districts.

Yet there is reason to be hopeful. When this once-a-decade redistricting battle is over and the courts have signed off on the new maps, Florida should have more competitive races for Congress and the Legislature. That should produce a congressional delegation and a Legislature that better reflects a megastate that is more purple than red or blue. And that should result in more mainstream public policy than what we're getting now from Tallahassee and Washington.

Voters should pat themselves on the back.

More than six out of 10 voters approved Amendments 5 and 6, which are forcing the Legislature to draw more sensible districts. The amendments require that districts cannot be drawn to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. They say the districts should be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries where possible. And they say the districts cannot reduce the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice.

That's a substantial improvement over the bad old days.

In 1992, I spent countless hours in the Capitol with patient redistricting committee staffers, poring over new district maps on computer screens. With a mouse click or two, little dots popped up indicating the home of each incumbent member of Congress and the Legislature. It wasn't clear to the public, but it was clear in the Capitol why many of the lines were drawn along particular streets or around specific neighborhoods.

At least now the incumbents' addresses are not loaded into the computers and hidden from the public.

The 1992 redistricting was as historic as the 1960s court-ordered maps that wrested control of the Legislature from the "Pork Chop Gang" — rural conservative Democrats who represented less than a quarter of the state's voters. The 1992 maps resulted in bizarrely shaped districts and the election of the state's first African-American members of Congress in more than a century: Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale and Carrie Meek of Miami. Almost two decades later, Brown and Hastings are still in office — and Brown has filed a self-serving lawsuit in federal court challenging the voter-approved redistricting changes.

Of course, the rules already were different than they were in 1992 even before the constitutional amendments were approved.

Two decades ago, legislators and the courts presumed the law required that any districts that could be drawn to enable minority voters to elect candidates of their choice had to be drawn — no matter how strange the districts looked or how far they stretched to link minority voters from different communities. Brown's court-ordered district initially covered more than 250 miles through 14 counties to include black neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Daytona Beach and Orlando.

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against districts whose shapes were "irrational" or "bizarre.'' It also concluded race cannot be the predominant factor in creating legislative and congressional districts. The courts required Brown's district to be redrawn, and it covers parts of nine counties instead of 14. But the district still stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando, packs in Democrats and is considered one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.

So even after 20 years and a transfer of power in the Legislature from narrow Democrat control to Republican dominance, the redistricting battle rings familiar. Amendments 5 and 6 are having a positive effect on reducing incumbency and party affiliation as determining factors in drawing new lines. But many elected black Democrats are still aligning themselves with white Republicans to keep as many minorities in office as possible even if it means reducing the number of districts where Democrats with similar policy views can win.

The question that frustrated Haridopolos so many months ago remains the same: How can the Legislature draw districts that are compact and logical, and still avoid retrogression — putting minority voters in worse shape under new maps than in the existing maps?

One of the answers, of course, is to focus on how districts perform in elections instead of packing them with more Democrats than needed to provide opportunities for minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. But the courts are fuzzy on how to go about this, and look for more lawsuits.

The Legislature is off to a reasonable start on redistricting, but there are improvements to be made. The voters — who overwhelmingly approved changes in the way the districts are drawn that should result in more competitive elections with real choices — should demand that their wishes are followed.

Tim Nickens can be reached at tnickens

Redistricting: Redrawing better districts for Florida by law 01/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 5:38pm]
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