A Supreme Court decision on redistricting at the end of the last term should give heart to all those people in Florida who for years have tried and failed to make the Legislature deal responsibly and fairly with this all-important political issue.
The court let stand a challenge to Arizona’s method of drawing election districts by assigning the task to an independent commission, thus taking the Legislature out of the picture in the hope of producing a fair electoral map free of the corrupting influence of gerrymandering.
Ideally, the task should be entrusted to elected representatives in state legislatures who reject partisan interests in favor of producing the fairest map possible. Yet it’s doubtful anyone familiar with politics believes this happens.
Redistricting has become, at best, a flawed process designed to work solely in favor of whichever political party has the upper hand. It is a system that allows officeholders to control the rules under which they compete for political power. Not surprisingly, their overriding interest is to look out for themselves and their party. The notion that they do their best to ensure that political representation fairly reflects the electorate and respects existing political boundaries is hopelessly naive.
Enter the independent commissions. Ten states give such commissions a role in congressional redistricting, although California is the only state besides Arizona that has a fully autonomous independent commission.
Plaintiffs argued that the Constitution explicitly assigns the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections to the “legislature.” But that has not prevented states from enacting laws governing elections — including new forms of primaries, registration rules, ID laws and so forth — by voter referendum.
“There are zillions of these laws,” Justice Elena Kagan observed during oral arguments last March. “So would all of these laws be unconstitutional as well?” Clearly, a majority of the court accepted her reasoning in its recent ruling. Under Arizona’s system, wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority, “initiatives adopted by the voters legislate for the state just as measures passed by the representative body do.”
So why and how is all this pertinent to Florida?
Because Floridians have tried and failed by amendment to make the Legislature draw the lines without resorting to partisan gerrymandering. “Fair District” rules adopted by the voters in 2010 were an attempt to improve the system. But in 2012, the process was infiltrated by non-elected Republican Party operatives who “tainted the map with improper partisan intent,” a Leon County Circuit Court judge declared.
Today, five years after voters thought they had sent the Legislature a clear message to remove partisanship from the process, the lawsuit by the League of Women Voters to protest the Legislature’s inability to obey the amendment remains unsettled. A decision by the Florida Supreme Court is expected soon.
Apparently, Florida’s lawmakers just can’t help themselves, no matter what the voters say, no matter how clearly worded the directive in a voter-approved amendment. It’s time, thus, to take the issue out of the Legislature’s hands and create an independent commission in Florida.
No one expects to take politics out of a fundamentally political process. But when the people’s elected representatives prove themselves incapable of doing their job properly, it’s time to let someone else do it.