Kudos to the woman behind Florida's new fair legislative districts
BILL COTTERELL, Florida VoicesThe game changer in Florida's 2012 elections is a woman who wasn't running, who did her campaigning more than two years ago and whose name is little remembered in the ebb and flow of political events.
Published: November 14, 2012
Published: November 14, 2012
The Democratic Party, President Obama's statewide organization, Sen. Bill Nelson's campaign and all the party's nominees and volunteers deserve credit for the significant step toward a comeback Democrats scored last week. But Ellen Freidin's work mattered a lot.
She and a few dewey-eyed optimists produced the "Fair Districts Florida" amendments. They didn't do it for the Democrats, the Republicans or any candidate, but everyone knew which party would benefit from the new rules.
The twin constitutional amendments, setting forth criteria for the state Legislature must follow in drawing new political boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, were adopted by 63 percent of Florida voters in 2010. The mandates require that lines be drawn without regard to incumbency, political party or other partisan considerations, and that the new districts be contiguous and as compact as possible.
Legislators also have to protect minority access under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and mandates of federal courts, and avoid unnecessary subdivision of cities and counties, in crafting new districts. But, other than that, it's just tough luck if two incumbents wind up running against each other, or some beloved leader of one party winds up in a district inhabited almost entirely by voters of the other party.
Naturally, such common sense got on the ballot by public petition. You wouldn't expect the politicians to take politics out of politics.
The Republican Party, controlling the legislative and executive branches of state government, fought the amendments all the way. Democrats supported them -- either out of a warm, fuzzy sense of fair play, or a realization that these changes would move the ball their way.
At public expense, the GOP legislative leadership went to court in a losing attempt to keep the public from voting on the amendments. They warned that the changes would be a logistical Rubik's Cube – like telling candidates to line up alphabetically according to age, weight and height.
As former Senate Democratic leader Dan Gelber points out, there were 17 House races decided by fewer than six points. The only Senate race pitting incumbents was won by Sen. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, the Democrat.
The party is suing over the Senate and congressional plans, despite a pickup of four seats in the U.S. House.
Even with a more level playing field, Democrats – who outnumber Republican voters in Florida – are still down 76-44 in the House and 26-14 in the Senate. In football terms, they made a field goal last week, not a couple touchdowns.
Legislators complied with Fair Districts Florida, with only minor dislocation of shoulders patting themselves on the back for doing right after exhausting all options. The Florida Supreme Court – the black-robed nemesis of Republican ideas – approved the House map and directed a few relatively minor changes in the new Senate plat. The feds let the congressional plan proceed.
We can only surmise what might have happened without Freidin's fair-districts work. With straight faces, legislative leaders would certainly have drawn safe districts for themselves and their party, while packing Democrats into as few districts as absolutely necessary.
Or maybe, in a burst of public-spirited altruism, they would have tossed aside partisanship and ambition, drawing the lines purely on the basis of population and fair play.
Right. And maybe a fat, jolly fellow in a red suit will slide down your chimney next month.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter who worked for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.