It looks like Florida legislators are heading back to the drawing board—literally. On July 10, Tallahassee circuit court judge Terry Lewis ruled that the GOP-run legislature violated the state constitution by redrawing two congressional districts “with the intention of obtaining enacted maps . . . that would favor the Republican party.” The state won’t be appealing the decision, and, following the 2014 midterm elections, the legislature will have to approve a new map. But what at first glance looks like a good government victory against the scourge of gerrymandering is actually the result of a years-long coordinated liberal campaign to set the rules for elections.
First, it must be stated: Florida is one of the worst gerrymandering offenders in the country, and because Republicans have controlled the legislature since 1997, the bias has been toward the GOP. One of the districts invalidated by the court ruling, the serpentine Fifth, is a federally mandated “majority-minority” district that winds its way from the west side of Jacksonville southward in a narrow band along the St. Johns River, jutting westward to take in Gainesville. It then shoots back east through a big chunk of the sparsely populated Ocala National Forest before slipping down to take in half of Orlando, some 150 miles south of Jacksonville.
The Fifth was designed to be a safe seat for Corrine Brown, a black Democrat. Republicans tried to pack in as many of north and central Florida’s black Democratic voters as possible, meeting the requirements for minority representation under the Voting Rights Act while allowing for the creation of many more reliably Republican districts, like suburban Orlando’s Tenth, the other district invalidated by the ruling. The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index gives Brown’s Fifth District a 21-point Democratic advantage, but there are also six safe Republican seats surrounding hers. This 6-for-1 arrangement keeps both Republicans and Corrine Brown elected and happy, though it doesn’t do much for electoral competition.
It certainly didn’t do much for Judge Lewis. Reading the beginning of his 41-page decision, you can practically hear Lewis tsk-tsk as he cites George Washington’s denunciation of political parties as groups of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” who try to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” That, Lewis implies, describes Republican legislators who drew Florida’s current congressional district map. Under Florida’s “fair districts” constitutional amendment, he concluded, the GOP legislature would need to draw a new map—a fair map.
But it depends on who’s defining “fair,” and currently, it’s all liberals. In 2005, the League of Women Voters of Florida began pushing for a constitutional amendment to govern the state’s redistricting rules. Two years later, the league joined with Common Cause, National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, Democracia U.S.A., and other liberal organizations connected to progressive mega-donor George Soros’s Open Society Institute to form a redistricting coalition called Fair Districts Florida. Later rechristened Fair Districts Now, the group’s directors include Peter Butzin, the Florida state director of Common Cause; Jorge Mursuli, the president of Democracia U.S.A. and a liberal immigration activist; and Leon Russell of the NAACP. Its president is the League of Women Voters of Florida’s own Pamela Goodman.
Fair Districts Now succeeded in putting two amendments on the ballot in 2010, one for state legislative districts and the other for congressional districts. Both amendments had vague and unobjectionable language requiring that districts not be drawn “to favor or to disfavor a political party or incumbent,” and where feasible to be “contiguous,” “compact,” and “make use of existing city, county, and geographical boundaries.” Then-governor Charlie Crist lent his support, and opposition was limited and late to the game. Both amendments were approved with an astounding 63 percent
of the vote.
But the folks of Fair Districts Now, which raised a total of nearly $3 million between 2010 and 2012, were just getting started. Florida gained two congressional seats in the 2010 census. The Republican-led legislature set to work on making a new map, approving the final version in February 2012. By September of that year, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Common Cause, and La Raza had filed a lawsuit against the map, arguing two of the districts were drawn in contravention to the state’s constitutional amendments—which the groups themselves had drafted. The coalition chose to file in Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit inthe liberal capital city of Tallahassee, where Lewis, an appointee of former Democratic governor Lawton Chiles, sat. Everything went according to plan, and it’s now likely the Republican legislature will have to redraw a congressional map more friendly to Democrats.
The Florida case exposes a blind spot of conservatives, says Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer and activist. She points out that liberals have well-funded coalitions that focus on how elections are conducted—what she calls “process issues.” “It’s second nature to the left,” she says. There’s no conservative coalition responding to similar gerrymandering schemes happening in Democratic-controlled states like Maryland and Illinois, and liberals are noticeably less active in those states. (An Illinois coalition called “Yes for Independent Maps” quietly announced in July it would not be pursuing an amendment ballot initiative this year.)
“Our donors don’t fund these kind of issues,” Mitchell says. “They want to give money to policy issues and candidates.”
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, points to “dozens” of organizations with affinity for Democrats that dedicate plenty of resources to election and voting laws, from the NAACP and La Raza to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the ACLU. “On the Republican side, there are no groups,” he says.
The seeds of the left’s attempt to “rewrite the rules of engagement,” as Mitchell puts it, were sowed in Florida, of all places, following the 2000 presidential election. Much of the left’s ire was directed at Florida’s Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, who liberals were convinced had “stolen” the election from Al Gore. In Ohio, another GOP secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, was accused of “delivering” the Buckeye State to George W. Bush by “purging” the voter rolls in Democratic precincts.
In response, liberal activists got together in 2006 to start the Secretary of State Project, a political action committee funded by various left-wing interests (unions, environmental groups, wealthy liberal donors) to elect Democratic secretaries of state across the country. In 2006 and 2008, the project supported successful Democratic candidates in Ohio, Minnesota, West Virginia, Montana, Missouri, and Oregon. These victories had significant consequences in subsequent elections. In Minnesota, a project beneficiary, Democratic secretary of state Mark Ritchie, ultimately signed off on the 2008 Senate election recount that put Democrat Al Franken over the top.
While the Secretary of State Project is defunct, the overall liberal project to set the rules for elections continues apace. The coordinated push against voter ID laws and proposals involves many of the same groups and donors connected with the Secretary of State Project and Fair Districts Now. Hans von Spakovsky notes that some conservative groups are fighting back on behalf of voter ID, including True the Vote, Judicial Watch, and the American Civil Rights Union, a right-wing analogue to the ACLU. But the dearth of “process issue” activism among conservatives remains a problem. It’s not enough, von Spakovsky says, to run the right candidates with the right message. Conservatives can’t cede ground on setting the “rules of engagement.”
As Cleta Mitchell puts it, “The golden rule of politics is, he who makes the rules, wins.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.