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Thursday, Oct 30, 2014
Joe Brown Columns
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Redistricting snuffs election competition

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The Florida Legislature finished its court-ordered task of fixing two congressional districts this past week that a judge ruled unconstitutional. Gov. Rick Scott approved it, but it’s still uncertain if Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis will sign off on it.

Lewis called for the Legislature to perform major surgery on the districts, particularly the one held by Rep. Corrine Brown, which stretches from Jacksonville all the way to Orlando. After looking at the new congressional map, however, it appears state lawmakers opted instead to do a nip and tuck.

As University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald told the Miami Herald, “A lot of furniture has been rearranged but it looks like the old house with the same rooms. I would not think any incumbents will be defeated as a result of this plan.”

Indeed, it makes me wonder why they bothered. Brown’s district looks basically the same. Then again, the judge didn’t give them any specific instructions, so we should have expected the Legislature to do as little as possible.

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Although we can never take politics totally out of an inherently political process, there is a way to lessen its influence. I saw it in Iowa, where I went to college and worked for many years, after the state lost a congressional seat because of population shifts. I think it’s a model for the rest of the nation.

In the 1970s, the Iowa General Assembly decided to turn redistricting responsibilities over to legislative staff. The Legislative Service Bureau, which draws both legislative and congressional maps, is required by statutory authority to disregard political affiliations and incumbency when designing new districts. The only demographic information it may use is population.

The bureau must draw districts with the following considerations, in order of the highest priority to the lowest: population equality, contiguousness, respect of county and city unity, and compactness. Once the districts are drawn, the Legislature must vote up or down on the plan. If the first draft isn’t approved, the bureau gets two more cracks at it.

The result is districts that make geographical sense and have competitive races every two years, unlike in Florida, where many incumbents won’t even have an opponent come November.

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Under such a system, Pinellas County would have two congressional districts instead of three, and it would make sense given the balance of registered voters. According to Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark’s website, the county has 617,925 active voters: 219,538 Republicans, 223,751 Democrats and 174,636 “Others,” consisting mostly of independents. It’s ideal for competitive races, but the redistricting following the 2010 census sets up things to favor the two incumbent Republicans, and none of the three representatives has any major-party opponent in November.

Critics of such a plan have said that while it works fine in a state like Iowa, which is about 95 percent white, it could never go over in Florida, which is subject to the Voting Rights Act that requires demographic information be factored into redistricting.

So that means we have to get politics and race out of the process, but it won’t be easy.

Any changes to districts like Corrine Brown’s will surely bring court challenges by minorities who want to maintain the status quo.

And that is what is so frustrating about this mess: It’s a bipartisan effort. While Republicans drew the districts, many Democrats signed off on it.

Lost in all this partisan gerrymandering are the millions of independent Florida voters. They can’t vote in primaries, and they don’t get the option of competitive races, either.

“You’re not going to end something this important at the circuit court,” said state Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

He’s right, and it won’t happen anytime soon. Eventually, the U.S. Justice Department or the U.S. Supreme Court, or both, will have to have the final say.

In the meantime, look for Florida elections again to be a national joke. As comedians like to say, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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