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Sunday, Jul 27, 2014
Joe Brown

District made for race, party cheats voters

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Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis ruled last week in Tallahassee that two Central Florida congressional districts were unconstitutional, “made a mockery” of the voter-approved “Fair Districts” amendment and must be redrawn. This prompted Nick Hansen, a Republican political consultant, to remark on the local PBS show, “Florida This Week”: “If you’re Congressman David Jolly, or if you’re Congresswoman Kathy Castor, you’re probably waking up this morning going, ‘Whew!’ ”

Jolly’s Pinellas district is one of the most normal in the state. It’s compact, entirely within one county and doesn’t really favor one party over another. Castor’s, on the other hand, stretches from South St. Petersburg to east Tampa and purposely was drawn to elect a Democrat. Both survive for now, but that could change because you can’t redraw one district without having ripple effects on others.

The two congressional districts affected are Democrat Corrine Brown’s, which snakes from Jacksonville to Orlando, and Republican Daniel Webster’s, which is mostly in Winter Garden but has an “appendage” to benefit him.

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Although the League of Women Voters and other groups that filed the lawsuit against the 2012 redistricting process are happy to see new lines drawn, it probably won’t happen anytime soon. On Tuesday, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford said they won’t appeal the ruling, but they asked that redrawing be postponed until after the Nov. 4 general election because absentee ballots for the Aug. 26 primary already have been mailed to overseas voters. Also, the Florida Supreme Court, which eventually would rule on the constitutionality of the districts, is in recess.

Brown is likely to take her case to federal court using the Voting Rights Act to defend her district. In fact, that historic legislation passed in 1965 is the real elephant (or, if you wish, donkey) in the room.

In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was amended to encourage the creation of “majority-minority” districts to give black voters the strength of a voting bloc to elect “candidates of their choice,” and it worked. In 1980, there were 18 blacks in Congress. Today, there are 44 blacks in the 113th Congress, accomplished largely through racial gerrymandering. That’s progress, but it has come with a huge downside. When black Democrats and Republicans formed the unholy alliance to maximize minority representation, Republicans got the better of the deal. The earliest evidence of how the GOP benefited took place in 1994 when the party took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

So although racial gerrymandering increases minority representation, it also may diminish minority influence because Congress overall has less incentive to pay attention to their demands.

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I’ve never been a fan of race-conscious gerrymandering. To me it’s legalized racial segregation, which the civil rights movement fought for years to eliminate. Brown’s district, which at one point narrows to the width of U.S. 17 for the sole purpose of traveling to the next black community, is an example of what some would call “resegregation of the South.” This I know: If the boundaries for a school were drawn to maximize the number of black students, there would be an outcry followed by lawsuits.

We can blame a lot of this on the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite numerous rulings in the 1990s on voting districts, the nation’s highest court still hasn’t answered the most important question: Is it constitutionally permissible to create congressional districts to guarantee minority representation? The justices haven’t given the country clear guidance; neither has Judge Lewis in his ruling, which is why I see a long, drawn-out process that will have little, if any, effect on 2014 elections.

It certainly won’t affect the three congressional districts in Pinellas. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor have no opposition. Because of the ineptness of Democratic Party officials, Jolly’s only opponent is a Libertarian candidate.

This points out another downside of race- and party-conscious redistricting: noncompetitive elections. When a district is drawn blatantly to favor one party over another, would-be candidates don’t bother to run. That’s why there are so few competitive congressional districts in Florida for the Nov. 4 election. Let’s be hopeful the courts eventually will rule whether it’s constitutional to pack minority voters in one district, or whether they can be drawn to favor one party. In the meantime, we who believe in true democracy should ponder if it’s pragmatic and, more important, democratic.

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