There are few things voters have a greater vested interest in than legislative districts. Those lines and boundaries have a profound impact on political parties gaining and keeping power, candidates at all levels getting a fair shot and overall election fairness. So there’s ample reason the maps and documents related to the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing legislative boundaries should be open under Florida’s public records law. Lawmakers should kill the current exemption that shields those records from public scrutiny.
Democrats controlled the Legislature way back in 1993 when the public records exemption was carved out. Voters had recently approved a state constitutional amendment expanding Florida’s public records law. But lawmakers also got to write their own rules and exemptions to that law. They chose to exempt “the documents that were central to their political power — those related to redistricting,” Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas reported recently.
Make no mistake: Shielding the redistricting process only benefits people in power. When they can keep their schemes and motivations secret, they can protect their own continued dominance. The exemption applies to “a draft, and a request for a draft, of reapportionment plan or redistricting plan and an amendment thereto. Any supporting documents associated with such plan or amendment until a bill implementing the plan, or the amendment, is filed.”
Sounds dry, but fast forward to 2010 after Republicans had risen to power. Only because of a legal challenge to the redistricting process that year were lawmakers forced to turn over their records — which revealed they had intentionally violated the state’s anti-gerrymandering law by using maps drawn by Republican political consultants as blueprints for the final maps drawn by lawmakers. No wonder they wanted to keep them private. Those maps were ultimately thrown out by a judge and redrawn — an unlikely outcome if the records had never become public.
Florida’s Constitution now explicitly prohibits political gerrymandering, or drawing district lines that benefit particular lawmakers or their party. The boundaries are required to protect minority voters — for example, by not running a boundary through an African-American neighborhood thus dividing and diluting those votes — and create districts that are compact, contiguous, equal in population and follow city or county lines where feasible.
With redistricting on the docket again this year, an effort by two lawmakers to bring more sunshine to the process is well-timed. Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, and Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, have filed companion bills (SB 530 and HB 6053) that would simply remove the exemption. Their reasoning makes too much sense. ”If you’re going to have full access, there shouldn’t be this exemption,” said Geller. Added Taddeo: “We should not have any exemptions for the process to be truly trusted.”
Lawmakers from both parties have given voters plenty of evidence why they can’t be trusted with this fundamental duty. The state’s fair districts requirements, thankfully, now force lawmakers to draw sensible legislative boundaries without regard for their own political interests. Ending the public records exemption would make them prove it.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.