1. Opinion

New district boundaries need work

Published Feb. 11, 2012

They look prettier, but they are not significantly fairer. That is the bottom line on the new congressional and legislative districts approved by the Florida Legislature. Now it will be up to the courts to adjust the lines to ensure the districts meet the intent of the new redistricting rules approved by voters. While the Legislature took a significant step in the right direction, it did not go far enough in drawing districts that better reflect the state's political balance and comply with the state Constitution.

The new maps, particularly those for Congress and the state House, are an improvement over the current districts. That is because in 2010 Florida voters approved constitutional amendments placed on the ballot through a voter petition drive by the nonpartisan group Fair Districts. More than 60 percent of the voters approved Amendments 5 and 6, which require legislators draw districts that do not favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties. The districts have to be compact and follow political and geographic boundaries where possible. And they cannot reduce the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice. After complaining for months that the standards were unworkable, Republican legislative leaders now argue that the new maps meet the requirements. But they could have done more, particularly with the state Senate districts.

How they look

The new districts generally look better and are more compact. The number of counties and cities that are split between districts is significantly reduced on the congressional and legislative maps. The House's redistricting effort, led by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was a particularly good-faith effort as more than two dozen state House incumbents wound up sharing districts. The Senate map is the least defensible and appears to be exactly the sort of incumbent protection effort the Constitution now prohibits.

In theory, the new redistricting requirements should have resulted in maps that would produce a congressional delegation and Legislature that better reflect Florida's political balance. After all, Democrats hold an edge in voter registration, and the last three presidential elections have produced an effective tie in 2000, a Republican win and a Democratic win. Yet Republicans now hold 19 of 25 congressional seats, 28 of 40 state Senate seats and 81 of 120 state House seats because of the way the current districts are drawn to protect incumbents and ensure Republican control.

The new districts appear only marginally more competitive. A Tampa Bay Times analysis based on previous election results suggests Democrats could pick up three congressional seats, with two other districts competitive. If the new congressional maps meet the constitutional requirements, why would President Barack Obama have won only 10 of the 27 new districts even though he carried Florida in 2008?

Minority districts

The primary reason for the continuing political imbalance and the remaining irregularly shaped districts is that the ability of minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice cannot be reduced. That's why a sprawling congressional district still snakes through eight counties from Jacksonville to Orlando. A version of that district was first drawn 20 years ago and has been represented since then by Rep. Corrine Brown, one of four African-American members of Congress from Florida. And that's why a Tampa Bay district held by Rep. Kathy Castor, who is white, still reaches from downtown Tampa across the mouth of Tampa Bay into southern St. Petersburg. Those districts were originally packed with Democrats, resulting in more heavily Republican neighboring districts. Now legislators say they cannot reduce the minority voting-age population in such packed districts without violating constitutional protections.

To be fair, there are no firm standards to define retrogression, and the courts should be clearer. A commonsense approach would weigh voter performance more than the size of the minority voting-age population. For example, Obama won 70 percent of the vote in Brown's new district and 65 percent of the vote in Castor's. The minority voting-age population in those districts could be reduced — and some of those residents spread to adjoining districts to make those districts more competitive — without diminishing the ability of minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice.

Tampa Bay

Largely because of the minority districts, the metro Orlando and Tampa areas are more carved up than the constitutional amendments would anticipate. The Orlando area is divided into five congressional districts, including Brown's district and a new Hispanic district. Hillsborough is divided into four congressional districts, yet Castor will still likely be the only member of Congress who will live in the county after the 2012 elections.

Weatherford points out that Castor's new district no longer crosses into Manatee County. And most of the voters in District 15, which covers northeast Hillsborough and western Polk County, live in Hillsborough. But the balance of political power in that district is in Polk, where Republican Rep. Dennis Ross lives. Ross immediately declared his intention to run in District 15 and says he looks forward to getting to know the district that now includes the University of South Florida. It is hard to see how this district unites anyone's common interests except those of Ross and the Republican Party.

The noncompetitive districts in Hillsborough don't just hurt Democrats. Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe dropped his plans Friday to run for Congress against Castor after concluding that district is too stacked with Democrats for a Republican to be competitive.

But even more inexplicable is lumping the southeast Hillsborough communities of Fish Hawk and Sun City Center into a sprawling District 17, which covers rural interior counties and stretches across the state to Okeechobee County. Those suburban Hillsborough communities could find themselves represented by Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, who now lives in a Palm Beach County hamlet and plans to run in this district. Imagine Sun City Center residents crossing the headwaters of the Everglades to visit their representative. This is exactly the sort of creative mapmaking that voters were trying to prevent when they approved the constitutional amendments.

While the new congressional and legislative districts are an improvement over the current ones, there is more work to be done. The courts should review the maps carefully, clarify the law and order the necessary adjustments.