Florida voters sent a message in 2010 that they wanted the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries in Florida to be as transparent and fair as possible.
They approved two constitutional amendments related to redistricting. One dealt with state legislative districts and the other with federal congressional districts. The amendments prohibit lawmakers from drawing district boundaries to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Each measure passed with a healthy 63 percent of the vote.
Two years later, when the first redistricting process began in earnest under the new rules, legislative leaders in charge of the process spoke of the need for integrity. They traveled the state gathering public input.
But the testimony in a Tallahassee courtroom over the past several weeks shows the 2012 redistricting process was pretty much business as usual. Secret meetings were held, documents were deleted and a fake email account may have been created in an apparent attempt to hide the fact that Republican consultants may have helped draw a district map.
Testimony ended last week and a judge will decide soon whether the Republican lawmakers in charge of the process violated the laws. If so, the judge could order the maps redrawn.
Regardless of the decision, the trial has been a blow to any notion that the newly passed constitutional amendments diminished the influence of partisan politics in a process critical to ensuring that representation in our political bodies is a true reflection of the populace.
The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other voting-rights groups sued when they suspected the new 2012 congressional district boundaries were drawn to favor Republicans, the party in power in Tallahassee. It doesn’t matter that the liberal-leaning groups may have had political concerns themselves. What is important is that the districts looked to have been drawn with politics, not voters, being the overriding concern.
Lawmakers responded to the suit by fighting to keep their deliberations secret. It took Florida Supreme Court rulings to force legislative leaders to testify, and to get a consultant’s documents introduced as evidence.
None of this inspires any confidence that the lawmakers were working for the benefit of the voters rather than for the benefit of their personal political interests. That confidence can only be won by conducting business in the open and by attempting to follow the will of the voters who approved the amendments.
This is not an indictment of the Republican Party. The history of redistricting in this country is replete with tales of back-room dealings by every political party. By drawing the boundaries to pack a district with voters registered to a particular party, the lawmakers creating the maps control who is elected. “Under our current system elections are essentially rigged before the ballots are even printed,” wrote former Gov. Bob Graham and former state Comptroller Bob Milligan in a joint opinion column in support of the 2010 amendments.
Redistricting shouldn’t involve political consultants and secret meetings. The entire process should be out in the open, where the public can be assured the districts lines are being drawn fairly and in the best interests of the voters.
If nothing else, the lawsuit has put lawmakers on notice that engaging in the kind of sordid conduct associated with past redistricting efforts can now be exposed for all to see.