An essential part of an effective democratic system is making sure everyone is appropriately and fairly represented. The system known as redistricting, though seemingly random and confusing, was originally meant to accomplish this.
Electoral districts are districts within which only the people in a demarcated area are allowed to vote in their local election.
They are meant to thwart voter fraud by assigning citizens to specific voting locations by address, as well as to avoid eventual inequalities in representation that develop over time if district lines are held static. The idea is that if demographics change, districts should change with them so they accurately represent the citizenry.
But redistricting has a long history of being used to manipulate voters. Gerrymandering happens when electoral districts are arbitrarily created, usually by a party, to maximize the effects of supporting votes and minimize the effects of opposing ones, rather than to represent the people. And Florida, according to Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters Florida, has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.
Seriously, what is redistricting?
Every decennial census (that is, every 10 years), the lines that demarcate voting districts have to be redrawn. They’re extremely important, as they’re used for the election of state representatives, senators and the U.S. House.
Florida relies on its partisan legislature to redraw district lines. Until 2010, when the Fair Districts Amendment was added to the Florida constitution, there was no oversight to legally enforce the creation of compact, contiguous, sensible districts that keep cities and counties together in representation.
Instead, districts were often drawn long and sprawling, with the aim of packing them with people who favor a particular political party.
The 2010 Fair Districts Amendment was created to enforce accountability by prohibiting any line-drawing that intentionally favors one political party over another.
But old habits die hard: After long legal battles at the lower court levels, the Florida Supreme Court declared in July that eight of the districts redrawn in the 2012 map were “tainted by unconstitutional intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbent lawmakers.”
When asked how soon they identified gerrymandering after the maps were released, Goodman did not mince words.
“Immediately,” she said. “It was apparent as soon as they were released.”
A Supreme Court case against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner deemed the 2012 maps unconstitutional. The coalition of plaintiffs in the case included Common Cause, a national citizen’s lobbying organization and the Florida League of Women Voters.
The league, which started as a Progressive-era institution to organize women’s newly obtained voting power, has been fighting to uphold voting rights for 76 years and recognizes the fight is important to every citizen regardless of gender.
“[Redistricting is] really not a sexy topic. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you bring it up,” Goodman said. “But it’s at the core of our right to vote and our choice of candidates.”
Hold up, run that back!
In the Supreme Court case, eight districts were deemed unconstitutional by the court, with Districts 5 and 13 being the most overt and 14, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27 needing redrawing as well.
To understand the kind of political engineering attempted in the 2012 maps, it’s worthwhile to look at District 5, which includes parts of Gainesville.
In order to carve out adjacent white, Republican-leaning districts, new district lines were drawn from Jacksonville north, cutting through Gainesville and ending in Orlando. This concentrated African-American voters into one district rather than spreading them among what should have been multiple districts.
This is not the only case of gerrymandering in the state. To remedy this, the fifth district is being redrawn from east to west with a second look at the surrounding districts.
This time, Gainesville will be represented within the same district, no longer divided in half. This kind of change is seen in many non-partisan replacement maps.
The Congressional map that is being redrawn over the 100-day special session mandated by the court is just one of three being evaluated. One House Congressional map, two Senate Congressional maps and two Coalition Plaintiff Congressional maps were submitted to the Supreme Court on Sept. 15 with changes meant to remedy political biases.
The Senate, ultimately unable to come to a compromise, sent in two non-preferential maps. The Coalition Plaintiffs submitted two as well, because although they agree with and largely based their maps upon the House-proposed map, they feel that the 26th and 27th districts in South Florida still show evidence of gerrymandering.
All of these maps will be presented in court, where they will be defended by attorneys on either side. After the proceedings Judge Terry P. Lewis of Florida’s Second Circuit Court will decide which map will be implemented.
What does this mean for the local community?
On its face, Florida has always been an important swing state in national elections, and with the 2016 election looming on the national stage, it’s important that everyone has a fair hand.
But also, compact and fair district borders ensure that we have a broader, more nuanced choice of elected officials at the local level and that election results represent what the electorate really wants, instead of reflecting the whims of officials already in power.
Most importantly, this whole process stands as an example of how our democracy still functions as it was intended to. When the Fair Districts Amendment was initially passed, people were sure the legislature would try to bend the rules and test the limits of the permissible. What all of this ended up testing was whether the check-and-balance system that forms the foundation of our democracy could still be on the side of the citizen, or if it had been co-opted by personal ambitions.