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Florida Legislature needs to draw fair districts, stop gerrymandering

This article was originally published May 23rd in The Gainesville Sun and can be found here.

As Floridians follow the latest in Corrine Brown’s fraud convictions — which were recently overturned by a federal appeals court — some might wonder how the former congresswoman ended up representing communities winding all the way from Jacksonville to Gainesville to Orlando.

Brown’s former congressional district was the epitome of gerrymandering, the term used to describe drawing legislative boundaries to favor a particular political party or incumbent. Brown served a dozen terms in Congress before being defeated in 2016, after she was indicted for her involvement in a scheme in which she received money from a scam charity.

Corrine Brown's former congressional district.

By that time, her district had been redrawn to be more geographically compact — but not until Florida voters passed ballot initiatives banning gerrymandering and the courts threw out districts violating the measures.

Now Florida is again preparing to redraw legislative districts. New Census numbers mean Florida will add a congressional seat due to its growing population. With the GOP solidly controlling the Legislature, the state might be in store for a process that favors Republicans — and again violates the voter-approved measures that are supposed to prevent gerrymandering.

Politico reports that former Trump administration official Carlos Trujillo is leading a new nonprofit, called Democracy Now, that will try to use Florida’s redistricting to help Republicans retake the U.S. House. Democrats have their own redistricting group, chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder, that is seeking to influence the process.

The Fair District amendments, passed in 2010 with nearly 63% of the vote, are supposed to prevent partisanship from guiding redistricting. The measures ban the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts “to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party,” while requiring districts to be compact and make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries where feasible.

But the Republican-led Legislature essentially ignored the amendments in 2012. A legal challenge was filed against the districts they drew, which showed that Republican operatives created a shadow redistricting process that included faked “public” submissions of GOP-leaning maps and phony testimony at hearings.

Eventually the Florida Supreme Court approved new congressional maps submitted by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. But the state’s highest court has since undergone a conservative makeover, raising questions about how much leeway it will give to Republican lawmakers.

The Fair Districts amendments are flawed. Leaving the drawing of districts up to the Legislature increases the chances for mischief. Other states have created independent commissions to draw districts.

But the courts can’t keep letting the Legislature get away with disregarding the will of the people. On issues ranging from land conservation to medical marijuana to voting rights for former felons, state lawmakers have whittled down or just ignored ballot measures solidly approved by state voters.

U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Gainesville, speaks as the U.S. House of Representatives debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7.

Redistricting reforms alone won’t fix our polarized political system. We had thought that a new district that included all of Alachua County, rather than splitting it into two districts, would lead to a more moderate representative. Instead, far-right House Freedom Caucus member Ted Yoho was easily reelected before his former deputy chief of staff, Kat Cammack, succeeded him.

Voters ultimately have to decide what candidates to elect once the new districts are developed. But the outcome shouldn’t be rigged to favor a particular candidate or party due to the way that the districts are drawn.

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