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Democracy drowning in snake oil of incumbency

Have you ever heard of the "Pork Chop Gang?" That was the nickname of a few North Florida folks who unfairly controlled our state Legislature well into the 1960s. They did it by using voting districts that did not reflect Florida's true population.

Four decades later, I believe that the tide of unfairness in the Florida Legislature has again risen to a historic level. Reversing it is the most important political change we could make to prepare Florida for the 21st century.

Here is the truth of it:

Competitive democracy no longer exists in Florida at the legislative level.

That is no exaggeration. Democracy has ceased to exist when it comes to electing the Florida Legislature.

Our legislators, because they have the power to draw their own voting districts, have drawn their maps in such a way that they cannot be seriously challenged.

Republicans have their own districts. Democrats have their own districts. The incumbents on both sides are fat, happy and safe. They cannot be defeated.

Here is how many incumbent members of our 160-member Florida Legislature were defeated in this past November's general election:

Zero.

Zero!

If we were talking about communist China or the old Soviet Union, you and I might be feeling smug and yukking it up right now. But we're talking about our own democracy. It has disappeared.

Let's look a little closer. Half of the 40-member Senate was up for election in 2004. But only nine incumbent senators drew any opposition at all. Only six actually drew an even faintly credible challenger from the other major party. All six won easily.

Over in the House, where all 120 seats were up for election, only 65 seats featured a contested election.

Of those 65, only 36 featured a true contest with both a Democratic and a Republican candidates, as opposed to minor- or no-party candidates with no chance.

Finally, here is how many of those 36 House races ended up being even mildly competitive, decided by 10 percentage points or less:

Six.

Six competitive races, out of 120 House seats. Four of those close races featured incumbents. All four won, of course.

Bottom line: zero incumbents defeated in 2004. That's down from three in 2002.

I do not have a magic number in mind for how many competitive races we need in Florida to have a healthy democracy, but I can tell you this: It is a heck of a lot more than what we've got.

Now, why is there a 100 percent re-election rate for Florida legislators? Is it because they are doing such a great job? Are the citizens bursting with love and gratitude for their performance?

No.

Just the opposite. This Legislature in recent years has voted in favor of polluting the aquifer, weakening public schools and doubling telephone rates on consumers. It has debated how many arms and legs you have to lose on the job before you are considered "catastrophically" disabled. (Hint: They wanted it to be more than one.) It has discussed taking away insurance coverage for mammograms, and from kids with cleft palates.

The people of Florida are bursting with frustration at a Legislature that does not represent their philosophy. Increasingly, they are turning to their power of petition drive to demand that Florida act like a real state. The Legislature's answer: a proposed crackdown on petitions.

No. Customer satisfaction does not explain the Imperial Legislature. Incumbents do not have to worry, because they cannot be defeated. And a Legislature that does not have to fear re-election is a Legislature that is not answerable to the citizens for bad public policy.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be a revived version of a citizen petition drive to create fair, non-partisan voting districts in Florida, drawn by an independent body and not by the Legislature. It's being led by former U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor. When more information is available, and the petition is ready, you'll see it here.

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