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A Times Editorial

Voters, not maps, must rule

Naples lawyer Burt Saunders leaves the Florida Senate this year because of term limits, having been unopposed in his last two elections. He'll be replaced by state Rep. Garrett Richter, who already has won Saunders' open Senate seat because no one bothered to challenge him. As if to maintain political symmetry, lawyer Tom Grady will in turn fill Richter's empty House seat because he, too, drew no opponent.

Welcome to the state of democracy in Florida these days, where legislative and congressional jobs are as likely to be filled by cartographers as they are by voters. Forty-two state and federal lawmakers were automatically elected this year without opposition, in large part because their districts were drawn to discourage competition. Who draws the lines? The Legislature, of course.

A bipartisan group led by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham is trying again to break that political vise on redistricting. The only chance is to put the issue directly to voters, and the last two efforts were removed from the ballot before voters ever got a chance. This time, Fair, brings a more modest agenda.

The petition that Fair Districts is distributing would require that districts be contiguous and compact and "not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party." Inserting such language into the state Constitution won't necessarily stop lawmakers, but it will give judges a better tool to rein them in.

Redistricting has become a weapon of partisan warfare throughout the nation, as new technology has allowed lawmakers to make precision calibrations about the types of voters to include from each neighborhood or each block. The trick, then, is to create as many districts favorable to the incumbent party as possible by stacking up opposition party voters in as few districts as possible.

David Winston, a consultant who has helped Republicans redraw boundaries nationally, is not coy about the results. As he told Fight Club Politics author Juliet Eilperin: "When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system in out of whack."

Politicians from both parties actively play this game, which is why only a constitutional amendment — adopted by voters — is likely to ever end it.

Voters, not maps, must rule 07/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 5:48pm]
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