Ruth: Crossing the (voting) line

Published May 24, 2014

By their accounts of how Florida's congressional districts were gerrymandered … oh, sorry, reconfigured, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz would like you to recall those romanticized images of the Founding Fathers solemnly gathered in Philadelphia with nothing more on their minds than the highest ideals of democracy, freedom and liberty for all.

Cue the laugh track.

It was a busy week in a Tallahassee courtroom as Weatherford and Gaetz testified in a lawsuit challenging the Star Chamberesque redistricting of the 2012 congressional maps, brought by a group of Democrats, the League of Women Voters and several individuals. The plaintiffs are arguing Republicans pushed black voters into a handful of Democratic congressional districts that look like baby drool to protect the districts of nearby Republicans House members.

About the only things missing from the testimony of Gaetz and his Renfield of the voting booth were powdered wigs, waistcoats and knee-breeches.

At issue is whether Republican legislators allowed their staffs to collude with political consultants, lobbyists and other influence-peddlers to violate the state Constitution and shape the outcome in favor of GOP candidates. Smoke-filled backroom hanky-panky? Perish the thought.

Gaetz and Weatherford tut-tutted and argued nothing could be further from the truth as they burned the midnight oil in the spirit of bipartisanship. Of course, to believe that you would have to accept members of the Florida Legislature, a wholly owned subsidiary of the state's deep-pocketed special interests, would discover their inner St. Augustine as apolitical champions for the common good.

It would be a lot easier to imagine Gaetz and Weatherford getting fitted with their halos if a few less-than-America the Beautiful details hadn't emerged.

Take an email from then-House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Give Me Liberty, Or A Check, to political consultant Marc Reichelderfer, in which he inquired "re the Senate's extra $10 million for redistricting, and the House's secret slush fund." Not quite a Federalist Papers moment.

Reichelderfer popped up again when the lobbyist and Cannon crony testified under oath that he had consulted with Republican legislative staffers and was privy to more than two dozen proposed redistricting maps that were supposed to be super secret, long before the public had a chance to review them. That's a big no-no.

The dubious claims by Gaetz and his Tallahassee Tonto that the redistricting effort was Simon Pure could be substantiated if Republicans and their operatives voluntarily released some 1,833 pages of internal documents relating to the process. That won't happen since the 1st District Court of Appeal illogically concluded the release of the documents would expose proprietary trade secrets. Poppycock.

Adding to the cloud hanging over the redistricting process is the testimony by Gaetz that secret meetings he conducted with Weatherford were entirely proper. Double poppycock.

The redistricting of congressional maps affects who goes to Washington and the policies they embrace there. It's supposed to make sure all voters are treated equally, and the state Constitution now requires that the boundaries cannot be drawn to protect incumbents and political parties. It should not be akin to a Skull and Bones Society secret process to blackball prospective members.

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Floridians have a right to know who wrote what to whom in emails. They have a right to know who was involved in giving advice on the maps and perhaps more important, who was sending checks to legislators and the party. They have a right to know who benefited from having access to the decisionmakers — and who didn't. They have a right to know if the value of their vote was compromised. They have a right to know if the fix was in.

Hired political flunkies shouldn't get to protect their "trade secrets" when it comes safeguarding voting rights. The public's trust was further eroded amid disclosures both Gaetz and Weatherford, knowing the maps would be challenged in court, still permitted some emails between various parties to be deleted. Gaetz attempted to promote the openness of redistricting by citing the 26 public hearings that took place around the state. And that is piffle.

After all, doesn't any self-respecting bank robber pose as a legitimate customer and case the joint before coming back to secretly pull off the heist?