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Redistricting plans hijacked Legislature

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Debate still festers, as it may forever, over whether the presidency was stolen in Florida last year. It's for certain that the Legislature was. Why is no one in a lather over that?

It wasn't on account of miscounted ballots, thuggery at the polls, or anything sudden, dramatic or obvious. The heist developed slowly, subtly, insidiously, over many years. The major political parties were the principal culprits. The lobbies were their accessories. The victims are the people of Florida, misruled by a Legislature they did not fairly elect.

Last week, I wrote that the blame for the Sad State of Florida belongs to the face in the mirror _ you who either voted for them or did not vote. To my surprise, my mail has been unusually heavy and entirely positive. To my greater surprise, no one pleaded two plausible excuses: What's the point in voting when there's no one for whom to vote? Why bother when you know your vote won't count?

When filing opened last year, 21 of Florida's 40 state Senate seats were at stake. When filing closed, only 12 still were. The other nine had been claimed without opposition except (in some cases) from write-in candidates whose names would not appear on the ballot and who would not be heard from again. That effectively disenfranchised 1.9-million registered voters, nearly half of those who should have had input into the Senate last year. But of the remaining 12 races that went to the ballot in November, nine were blowouts _ won by 60 percent or more. On that day, 250,000 people, voting for the first time because only one or another of the parties had needed a primary, learned that their votes wouldn't matter either. Their candidates never had a chance.

The situation was marginally but deceptively better in the House.

With 120 seats at stake, 21 candidates, mostly incumbents, drew no primary or general election ballot opposition. Another seven races would be settled in party primaries that were closed to other voters because write-in candidates had filed. The result: 1.7-million registered voters, roughly 19 percent, had no opportunity to cast a vote for the Florida House of Representatives.

Again, that wasn't the end of it. Another 32 contests would have been called early if politics had a version of Little League's 10-run rule. Each winner polled at least 60 percent, with 11 of them claiming 70 percent or better. The losers and their supporters never had a chance. Those futile votes comprised 256,000 Democrats, 186,000 Republicans, and 21,000 minor-party or no-party voters.

This isn't what they tell little children about American politics. In the schoolbook fantasy, each party has a hard-fought primary. Then the nominees go full tilt until November. At the end, the public's voice has been heard. The majority rules.

In reality, nearly half of Florida's House of Representatives either won their seats unopposed or in November elections that were over before they began. Additionally, there were no primaries in 28 of the 99 races that did go to the November ballot.

"What political science shows is the closer you get to a redistricting session, the fewer races you have," explains Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, who also chairs the Florida Elections Commission.

And of course, 2002 is a redistricting year. I know of at least one potentially attractive candidate, heavily recruited for 2000 by House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, who declined largely on that account. He might win, he thought, but then the Republicans would be sure to redesign the seat so that the next time he would lose.

But something should have been working against that instinct. Or so the term limits lobby insinuated when it gulled Floridians back in 1992. The eight-year limit took its first bite last year, opening 63 seats in the House and Senate. The result was to draw nearly all the action, such as it was, into those seats, and to guarantee a bye to many of those who could run again.

"It is certainly the case that we haven't had highly competitive legislative elections, and it's not just Florida," MacManus said Friday.,"I'm at the Southern Political Science meeting in Atlanta. It's a problem everywhere. The incumbency lock in state legislatures is becoming almost as intense as it is in Congress."

How the districts are drawn is the root of the evil. When the Republicans were the minority here, they dreamed of an independent commission to carry out redistricting every 10 years. The Democrats wouldn't hear of it. As Republican strength grew, they began to lose interest too, and their House leaders finally helped the Democrats kill it. The GOP had in mind a Faustian bargain with black Democratic legislators in 1992: more safe seats for you and more safe seats for us. Federal pressure, invoking the Voting Rights Act, contributed. This is, in large part, why so many races are over before they begin.

Campaign finance accounts for the rest. The lobbies are the Legislature's true constituency.

The optimist in me believes all this will someday be set right. The pessimist does not expect to live to see the promised land.