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.