The Republicans in charge of drawing new legislative and congressional boundaries in Florida thought they had come up with ways to include voters in the process. The leaders of the redistricting committees – Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel and Sen. Dan Gaetz, R- Niceville – promised public meetings across the state specifically to hear from the people.
They further opened up the process by using the Internet and social media, giving Floridians the chance to draw proposed maps by going online and using the same tools and data state staffers and lawmakers will depend on when they draw the boundaries.
But what was trumpeted as something of a goodwill tour this summer to offer people a say in the process has instead turned ugly. People showing up to meetings are in no mood to be respectful. They are accusatory and angry, as apt to lecture the representatives as to absorb information. They get testy when they don't like what they hear, and they're unwilling to cut the lawmakers any slack. Weatherford told the Tribune's Laura Kinsler after a meeting Monday night that he felt like a pinata.
Unfortunately, when the committees rolled out plans for the tour they gave some the impression they wanted to hold off drawing districts for as long as possible, and critics have accused them of taking too much time. These critics say keeping the maps under wraps will make it harder for anyone hoping to challenge an incumbent to develop a campaign strategy or build an effective elections organization
Over time these same critics have moved from insisting that the maps be shaped by public comments to demanding to see proposed boundaries to effectuate a significant discussion.
In truth, the critics don't think it matters what the committee hears or what maps citizens offer. They believe the maps will be drawn behind closed doors under a timeframe designed to stymie any legal challenges sure to follow.
The lesson in all of this is that try as they might, the Legislature, charged by the Constitution with drawing a map every 10 years, can't take the politics out of redistricting.
It's interesting that those who generally hail transparency and public participation in the political process – the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and mostly other left-leaning organizations – decry it here as a sham.
That's not to say the people showing up to meetings fed up with their representatives have nothing to complain about. The Republicans have insisted on spending millions to challenge the Fair District Amendments. Voters overwhelmingly approved those amendments last November and sent a message that boundaries must be drawn in a nonpartisan way. Rather than crazy districts that extend hundreds of miles or jump a street from house to house, the amendments require maps be drawn with contiguous and compact districts that make sense.
The legal challenge to the amendments is a waste of money. But that's not to say redistricting is a simple task, or even that politics can be removed. It is complicated by population changes – each legislative and congressional district must have the same respective population – and racial makeup.
Another truth: Even if Republicans weren't in charge and Democrats held power, another group of people would turn up at meetings to heckle and accuse the puppet masters of stalling and other dirty tricks. People on both sides talk a lot about "fair districts" – and most people would like to see maps drawn that make sense – but what "fair" really means when it comes to redistricting is retaining and not ceding power.
It's easy to imagine a district drawn without politics, but it's nearly impossible to find one.