The embarrassing failure of the Florida Legislature to craft new congressional districts in accordance with a recent order by the Florida Supreme Court has once again demonstrated that such a nakedly political body cannot craft the “fair districts” now called for in Florida’s constitution. Therefore, it might be time for Florida to follow the lead of other states and hand restricting power to an independent commission.
Last week, a Leon County judge postponed a decision about Florida’s still incomplete congressional redistricting map after legislative leaders failed to agree on how to redraw the boundaries. The Florida Supreme Court had ordered the Republican-dominated legislature to redraw eight congressional districts over the summer, after ruling that the lawmakers had drawn boundaries to favor incumbents, violating the anti-gerrymandering “fair districts” rules that voters added to the Florida Constitution in 2010.
While the legislature has until mid-October to complete the revised congressional map, a draft of the redistricting proposal was supposed to be ready in time for a hearing this past Tuesday. But a special legislative session ended last Friday without a plan after the two chambers deadlocked on the issue.
Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement that his chamber is not prepared to relinquish control to the trial court, and would prefer to come back into special session to find a compromise. His counterpart in the lower chamber, Speaker Steve Crisafulli, was not as confident that such a deal could be reached. After all, these are the same people whose budget brinkmanship nearly led to a fiscal disaster just two months ago.
While we respect the legislature’s wishes to attempt to resolve the issue internally, it is apparent in Florida’s toxic and dysfunctional political environment that this will not occur any time soon. A wiser, more pragmatic method moving forward would be to create an independent commission, void of political shenanigans, bias and influences, to create future districts, both congressional and for the legislature itself. An independent commission would eliminate — or at least greatly diminish — the harmful political displays that have continually marked the redistricting process in Florida. It would be far more likely to follow the dictates of the “fair districts” amendments.
This is not a unique concept. Currently, 21 states utilize some form of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission, 13 of which use redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral district lines.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that redistricting commissions such as Arizona’s, whose redistricting commission process is completely independent of the state legislature, are constitutional.
Arizona’s constitution requires its independent redistricting commission — comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent chair — to start from scratch each cycle, rather than redraw existing districts.
While members of the Democratic caucus in Tallahassee have proposed a change to an independent redistricting commission, such a change is unlikely to gain support from the dominant GOP leadership. Therefore, such a change would most likely require the same citizen-initiated referendum process that enacted “fair districts” in 2010.
The concept of one-person, one-vote mandates that districts should be roughly equal in population. Other factors which should be considered include the federal Voting Rights Act, geographical features, respect for communities of interest, district shape and potential competitiveness. How to create those districts is best left to those outside the legislature.
An independent redistricting commission is not possible in Florida currently, but in light of current events, it’s an idea which merits strong consideration. The residents of our state deserve better than what they are being presented out of Tallahassee.