Florida’s voters could not have been clearer when they passed an anti-gerrymandering amendment in 2010 that ordered lawmakers to create political district lines without favoring partisan interests or protecting incumbents. Predictably, legislators ignored the voters’ mandate, but now they’re forced to scramble to devise a new congressional map under a deadline that throws Florida’s electoral schedule into turmoil.
So here we are — Flori-duh all over again.
The unhappy predicament is the result of a ruling by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee that found “too much circumstantial evidence” that GOP lawmakers, staffers and consultants conspired in secret to draw Republican-friendly seats. Last week, he ordered the Legislature to redraw the boundaries of two congressional districts by Aug. 15 and said he will consider calling a special election later this year for all the affected districts.
Don’t blame the judge. He may have given the Legislature a nearly impossible task, but lawmakers have no one to blame but themselves. The violation of the law’s mandate was clear, and the evidence of wrongdoing too great to ignore. The judge reasoned that the failure to fix the maps right away would deny citizens the ability “to fairly elect representatives of their choice.”
This is an unqualified victory for voters who want fair elections. Gerrymandered districts deny voters an equal voice in government. They stack the odds in favor of interests and incumbents preferred by lawmakers who draw up the maps. They promote electoral apathy by reducing the choices that voters should have. They rig the game.
At present, Republicans are favored because Republicans control the Legislature. But Democrats, too, act in their own self-interest as long as their seats are protected.
The reckless disregard for the wishes of Florida’s voters is nothing new for the Legislature. Voters approved a state lottery in the 1980s because of a promise that the extra money would go for spending on education. Lawmakers turned around and cut school funding from the regular budget, effectively thwarting the voters’ will. Years later, when voters approved smaller classes, which again required more money for education, legislators furiously sought ways to ignore the mandate.
On Thursday, legislators will return to the state capital for a special session to revise the congressional redistricting map declared invalid by Judge Lewis. Specifically, they have to fix two districts he had previously ordered unconstitutional — those held by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden. The ripple effect could affect several other districts, though no changes in South Florida are foreseen.
The first thing the lawmakers should do is stop trying to find ways around the mandates of courts and voters. They created the problem. They should fix it as soon as possible by drawing fair and equal districts, and let the political chips fall where they may.
Judge Lewis is clearly aware that the tight deadline may result in an electoral calendar that is more expensive and burdensome on the public and on election supervisors, not to mention confusing.
But the greater evil is to let gerrymandered districts that do not meet guidelines embedded in the Florida Constitution remain in effect. This time, the will of the voters should prevail.