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Party Lines in Redistricting Florida

Once every 10 years, following the national Census, the Florida Legislature redraws congressional and legislative district boundaries to reflect population shifts. The results of the 2010 Census are likely to produce one additional congressional seat for Florida; lawmakers will carve out that seat and redistrict the state legislative seats in 2012.

[Illustrations and maps: Christopher Sheek]

Meanwhile, an effort is under way to force the lawmakers to change the way they draw the lines.

Redistricting is done today using sophisticated computer programs with detailed population and voter registration data. The party that is in power controls the process — and typically draws districts to concentrate its votes, maximize the number of seats it holds and keep its incumbents in power.

The result is a political map that's a collection of oddly shaped districts sprawling across all manner of geographical and governmental boundaries (county and city lines, for example).

A group called Fair Districts Florida — founded by Miami attorney Ellen Freiden and backed by a bipartisan group that includes former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham and Republican attorney Thom Rumberger — has garnered enough signatures to place two constitutional amendments on the 2010 ballot (one for legislative districts and one for congressional districts).

The proposed amendments would prohibit drawing district lines that favor any incumbent or political party. And they would require districts to be compact and drawn in a way that doesn't deny minorities an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

Sounds good, but there are good arguments on both sides of the proposition.

Bob Mulligan"All you need to do now is flash up a map of the districts in Florida and any objective citizen would look at it and say it's crazy."

— Bob Milligan, co-chair of Fair Districts Florida

For reform
For Reform

The Common Sense Factor

Districts simply ought to make sense in terms of existing geographic and political boundaries. Case in point, St. Lucie County, where knowing where to vote in a given election can be tricky since the county is split up among three Senate seats. Most of the county is in state Senate District 28, but its northwest corner lies within Senate District 17. Meanwhile, a small fingerlike sliver is part of Senate District 26, which also includes parts of three other counties.

St. Lucie County elections supervisor Gertrude Walker says that split creates confusion for voters. Dozens of voters were turned away from the polls last summer, in fact, because they didn't realize that they didn't live in the district where a special election was occurring.

Rep. Kathy Castor
Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor represents the 11th Congressional District, whose lines take a number of twists.

One particularly asymmetrical district is U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's Democrat-packed 11th District, which snakes through downtown Tampa, leaps south across Tampa Bay to south St. Petersburg and then jumps back over the Bay again to take in parts of Bradenton and Palmetto. Another eyebrow-raiser is the 16th Congressional District seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney (below).

As former Florida comptroller Bob Milligan, one of the co-chairs of Fair Districts, recently told the Capitol News Service, these districts just don't pass the common sense test: "All you need to do now is flash up a map of the districts in Florida and any objective citizen would look at it and say it's crazy."

Congressional District 16

Rep. Tom Rooney’s
district is 88% white.
Rep. Tom Rooney

Against reform
Against Reform

Geography Isn't Fair, Either

Using natural or geographic boundaries to draw political lines will produce districts that are just as "unfair" as those that are politically drawn — because like-minded people often cluster in geographic areas. Research by University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen and Stanford University professor Jonathan Rodden suggests that even without partisan gerrymandering, Republicans would win about 59% of the seats in Florida. "Urban districts tend to be homogeneous and Democratic while suburban and rural districts tend to be moderately Republican," Chen and Rodden conclude. "Thus in Florida and other states where Democrats are highly concentrated in cities, the seemingly apolitical practice of requiring compact, contiguous districts will produce systematic pro-Republican electoral bias."

Urban Areas Could Lose Clout

Politically drawn districts frequently result in an urban area having several representatives who can combine forces on behalf of the community. A geographically drawn district might look "fairer" but could concentrate the bulk of an urban area's population into fewer districts, reducing its clout in the Legislature or Congress.

Change Would Be Costly

At a time when fund raising already dominates a politician's time to an unseemly level, creating more competitive districts will only ratchet up the pressure to maintain well-funded campaign war chests. Potential candidates without financial means would be discouraged; special interests with deep pockets for campaign contributions would become even more powerful.

Meanwhile, redistricting is already litigated more in the United States than any other country, and the proposed amendments will just produce even more lawsuits. "State courts will have to look at whether they're compact or contiguous. Do they keep counties or cities intact? It's just going to allow the state court system, particularly the Supreme Court in Florida, to have a much larger role in redistricting," says Kevin Hill, an associate professor of political science at Florida International University who has served as a redistricting consultant and expert witness for the Florida House of Representatives.

For reform
For Reform

Eliminate Undue Party Influence

Supporters of "fair" redistricting believe districts should produce political representation that reflects voter registration patterns. Democrats have a nearly 700,000-voter advantage over Republicans in Florida, but Republicans control the Florida Senate 26-14 and maintain a 76-44 advantage over Democrats in the House.

Seth McKee
Seth McKee, assistant professor of political science at the University of South Florida, says redrawing districts won’t make politicians more responsive.
Sam Hirsch, a legal expert on the subject who now works for the Justice Department, has written that "an effective partisan gerrymander can consistently deliver at least two-thirds of a state's seats to the party that the drew the map, even if its candidates no longer capture a plurality of the vote statewide." Redistricting reform wouldn't propel Florida Democrats into the majority in 2012. But it would allow them to challenge the GOP's redistricting plans in state court and improve their chances in years to come. "You could run Santa Claus in some of these districts, and he would lose because he'd be of the wrong political party. It doesn't matter — it only matters what political party you are, and that's a shame," Florida state Sen. Dave Aronberg (D) says in the soon-to-be released documentary film on the topic called "Gerrymandering."

Senate District 27

State Sen. Dave Aronberg "You could run Santa Claus in some of these districts, and he would lose because he'd be of the wrong political party," says state Sen. Dave Aronberg.

The word first appeared in the Boston Gazette in 1812 after Massachusetts electoral boundaries were redrawn under Gov. Elbridge Gerry. Portrait painter Gilbert Stuart drew eyes, claws and wings on the outline of one district — designed to favor the Democratic-Republican Party — because it looked like a salamander. The word is a combination of salamander and Gerry.

Against reform
Against Reform

What About Minority Districts?

Gerrymandering isn't intrinsically evil: It's not only legal, but in some cases required by federal law. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Florida and several other (mostly Southern) states are required to draw lines that create safe districts for black and Hispanic politicians, no matter how bizarre the districts may look.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Gerrymand-ering created Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s majority-minority
In Florida, gerrymandering created the "majority-minority" districts that elected U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown (D) in Jacksonville and Mario Diaz-Balart (R) in Miami. Brown believes that requiring the Legislature to follow municipal and county boundaries where possible could come into conflict with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and significantly dilute the voting rights of African-Americans and Hispanics. "A lot of people would like us to have nice, square, cute districts. Well, let me tell you a secret: Florida is not a nice, square, cute state," Brown told state lawmakers at a recent hearing on the issue in Tallahassee.

Clear Majorities Have Virtues

Creating more competitive districts won't make their representatives more responsive. In fact, says Seth McKee, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Florida, it may be the case that representatives from "safe" districts win re-election consistently because they have a clearer sense of what the majority of their constituents want — and because the voters think they're doing a good job. Representatives in highly competitive districts may actually be less responsive because "they're constantly ‘running scared' of losing their next election," says McKee.

Thomas Brunell, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, believes that less competition produces a better relationship between voters and their representatives. Data show that people tend to be more satisfied with the government — and their elected representative in Congress — when the candidates they support are elected. In a competitive district with close races, therefore, a higher percentage of voters are dissatisfied with their elected representative and Congress as a whole. Brunell believes it makes more sense to draw lines that "pack" districts with as many like-minded partisans as possible because doing so makes for happier constituents.

For reform
For Reform

Engage the Populace

Boundary-drawing should contribute to citizens' confidence in the electoral process. By ensuring that districts included a more natural mix of voters, races would tend to be more competitive. Citizens would have more confidence in the integrity of the election process and voter turnout would rise. In reviewing the factors that led to "voting and non-voting" in every U.S. election since 1960, Mark N. Franklin at Trinity College in Connecticut concluded that "highly competitive elections generate higher turnout than elections whose outcome is felt to be a foregone conclusion," especially among newer, younger voters.

Make the Pols Pay Attention

Making fewer districts "bulletproof" would force lawmakers to be more concerned with voters' needs and wants and less apt to focus on pleasing powerful interest groups and staying in the good graces of political party leaders. Lawmakers who have to be sensitive to a broader array of interests within a district would be more inclined to seek the middle ground in debates over public policy.

Nobody Else Does It This Way

Many foreign democracies wouldn't think of allowing politicians to draw their own districts. They rely on non-partisan bureaucratic "boundary" commissions to do the job. While Fair District Florida's plan wouldn't take the job out of the Legislature's hands, it attempts to make the process as apolitical as possible.

Congressional District 3

Rep. Corrine Brown’s district is 49% African-American. Rep. Corrine Brown

For reform
Against Reform

Legislatures Need Incumbents

The system — particularly Congress, with its seniority system — needs long-term incumbents. Long-term incumbents provide institutional memory for the lawmaking body. More important, they amass invaluable experience and clout. Frequent competitive races might bring fresh blood, but an evolving roster of newcomers is unlikely to get as much done for their constituents.

Extremists May Gain

Creating more competitive districts won't put more centrists in office or lead to more consensus-building among lawmakers. Research by Harvard lecturer David C. King finds that some of the most extreme members of Congress were elected from some of the most competitive districts in the nation. Highly competitive contests tend to invigorate the most extreme voters to turn out in primary elections, and those voters tend to elect more ideologically extreme candidates, not centrists. In essence, it's not partisan gerrymandering that's driving candidates to the extremes — it's the voters themselves.

Fair Districts Florida Fund Raising

Between 2007 and 2009, Fair Districts Florida raised nearly $3.3 million for its successful signature-gathering effort. Here are some of the group's top donors:



Service Employees International Union


Christopher Findlater of Naples
(retired energy executive)


Frank Brunckhorst of Sarasota
(chairman of Boar's Head)


Idaho Development Co. of Florida


Florida Education Association


National Education Association


Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley
(West Palm Beach law firm)


Michael Singer of Alachua
(Former CEO of Medical Manager Health Systems)


Vincent J. Ryan of Massachusetts
(Investor, Schooner Capital)


Spohrer & Dodd
(Jacksonville law firm)


Wayne Hogan
(Jacksonville attorney)