The Biggest Trial in Florida That Few Are Following
One of the most important trials in recent Florida history is currently occurring in Tallahassee. Most Floridians are not following it very closely – if at all.
The trial grows out of a suit contending that the design of Florida’s congressional districts violates the state’s Fair Districts amendment, approved by voters in 2010. The plaintiffs, which include the League of Women Voters, contend that the congressional districts were drawn to favor Republicans – a clear violation of the Fair Districts amendment.
In our analysis, the plaintiffs have a strong case, since it does appear that Florida is one of the more gerrymandered states in the nation. We trust the trial will confirm this analysis. Besides this, and perhaps more troubling, is the behavior of our elected officials who have resisted requests for public records and conducted secret meetings on this issue.
There have been a number of informative articles and reports on this trial and associated issues. A few of these articles and reports are referenced following this editorial.
Analysis and Comment
What makes the gerrymandering case so important to all Floridians is its direct bearing on state and national elections, the decisions of government, and the democratic process itself. The substance of the charge behind this trial is whether the state’s congressional districts have been gerrymandered (i.e., “redistricted”) to favor Republicans. We agree with the assessment of statistics professor Jonathan Katz, from the California Institute of Technology, who testified “that Florida’s congressional map was heavily biased toward electing Republicans despite the state’s Democratic-edge in voters.”
The logic of the charge seems quite sound. In a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans, it is not clear how Republicans have come to occupy such a high percentage of seats in the state legislature: 26 of 40 state senate seats and 75 of the state’s 120 house seats. That’s 65% and 62.5%, respectively. Florida’s Congressional delegation reflects the same remarkable imbalance in favor of Republicans –17 of 27 seats, or 63%.
The suit is about congressional districts, but the same process is at work in the state senate and state house. The same team constructed those districts, too. Again, it is not an issue of slight majority in contested state, but a massive majority in a contested state, and one in which the party with the massive majority of seats is not the majority party by registration.
In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama received a little more than 50% of the votes in the state, and Mr. Romney a little less than 50%. Close! However, what was not close was the outcome of the voting for Florida’s 27 congressional seats. Despite receiving only 52% of the overall congressional votes, Republicans won over 60% of the congressional seats. How is it that a political party can gain such a pronounced advantage in election outcomes in a year when it loses a Presidential election, has fewer registered voters than the other major party, and its candidates received only slightly more total congressional votes than candidates of the other major party?
Why? Increasingly, it appears that the explanation for this counter-intuitive and rather disquieting situation is the result of the way congressional districts are drawn up. Benignly referred to as redistricting, what is actually happening is gerrymandering. It is occurring rather flagrantly in Florida as well as several other states, most notably: Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Floridians should be keenly aware of what is transpiring at this trial, and its outcome. It will determine whether their votes have actual political and governmental significance. The outcome of this trial will speak eloquently about the capacity of individuals to participate authentically in the political process and have their votes carry a measure of meaning and not serve as vacuous digits on a candidate’s final tally in an election decided before the polls opened.
Curiously, legislative leaders in Tallahassee, the very officials who supervised and managed the “redistricting,” are blocking efforts of the plaintiffs and the press to review internal documents related to the process. Apparently, public records law only reaches so far. Readers familiar with local government protocols and the interpretations of Florida’s Sunshine Law are probably a bit surprised that government officials in Tallahassee apparently have some greater power to shield their communication than local folks.
Local government officials and government-support volunteers are probably equally surprised to learn, as Daniel Ruth reports in the Tampa Bay Times, that Senate President, Don Gaetz, found it “entirely proper” to conduct secret meetings with House Speaker, Will Weatherford. Really! What happened to the Sunshine Law?
If a couple of members of a municipal parks and recreation committee or county library board had a secret meeting about striping a parking lot or charging an extra nickel for overdue books, they’d likely be deemed to be in violation of the Sunshine Law. Yet, in Tallahassee, when it comes to drawing up congressional districts, apparently secret discussions between two of the most powerful government officials are “entirely proper,” and the Sunshine Law does not apply to them.
What is at stake here is not just control of government power by one or another party (as significant as that is), it is about the most fundamental features of representative democracy, who seeks public office and who does not, the style and tone of political discourse, and whether we get meaningful legislation on issues of national concern – e.g., education, gun use, health care, fair wages, and the environment. How can it be that when it comes to deciding on the design of the political districts that directly vitalize these fundamental features of American cultural existence secret discussions between two of the most powerful government officials are “entirely proper,” and the Sunshine Law does not apply?
From our perspective, it seems fairly clear that Florida’s congressional districts are gerrymandered in violation of the Florida Constitution, and we would find it disappointing if the court decided otherwise. Besides this, however, is the more curious and unpleasant fact that access to the facts about the deliberations that went into the creations of the gerrymandered districts is being blocked by Florida’s highest ranking elected officials who have taken an oath to protect the constitution of the nation and the state, and then, furthermore, met in secret with little or no concern for the harm their meeting might do to trust, fairness, and integrity.
Gerrymander means to create an artificial civil division within a particular locale for an improper purpose. It refers to the drawing of boundaries of legislative districts to benefit one party or group and handicap another. Gerrymandering seeks to violate the constitutional mandate of “one man-one vote” by created legislative districts of unequal populations. Gerrymandering seeks to draw legislative districts that isolate member of a particular political party so that a maximum number of elected representatives of that party will be elected. The name is derived from Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a non-signing delegate to the Federal Convention of 1787, and a leader of the Jeffersonian Republican party. In 1812, while Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, the Republican-dominated legislature redrew district lines to weight representation in favor of Republicans and against Federalists. The Federalists attacked the redistricting, specifically blaming Gerry although he had nothing to do with the project and, in private, opposed it. A Federalist newspaper published a political cartoon depicting the oddly shaped district covering Essex County as a salamander; the cartoonist dubbed his creation a “Gerry-mander.”
References and Resources
Coverage of Redistricting Trial in The News Herald (Panama City)
Daniel Ruth’s column on Redistricting Trial, in Tampa Bay Times
Florida Voter Registration Statistics – Florida Dept. of State
Presidential voting outcomes by individual congressional districts, before and after redistricting (2008 and 2012) – DailyKos