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Ballot Proposals Would Loosen Incumbents' Grip on Political Districts

Legislative and congressional districts would have to be compact and contiguous

Over the past decade, only 11 incumbents have lost their seats in roughly 1,400 state legislative races.

Ellen Freidin, campaign chair of Fair Districts Florida, said that's one of the reasons her group sponsored Amendment 5 and Amendment 6 on the Nov. 2 ballot. She said Florida's voting districts were drawn to favor incumbent politicians or political parties, not to spark vigorous campaigns.

The amendments are designed to minimize party politics when congressional and legislative districts are redrawn in 2012.

Amendment 5 would require that state legislative districts be contiguous and compact, using city, county and geographic boundaries. Amendment 6 would do the same for congressional districts.

AARP Florida supports both amendments, which must be approved by at least 60 percent of the voters to pass.

Redistricting is pivotal to both parties. While registered Democrats exceed Republicans by almost 600,000 voters, boundaries drawn by the legislature over the past 20 years helped the GOP dominate the legislature and Florida's seats in Congress.

Fair Districts, which describes itself as nonpartisan, was backed heavily by Democratic allies, including the Florida Education Association and the Service Employees International Union. Fair Districts spent $3.2 million in a signature-gathering campaign to get the amendments on the ballot and urge their adoption.

The Republican-controlled legislature fought the two amendments and offered an alternative proposal that was struck from the ballot by a state court.

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, chairman of the Senate's Reapportionment Committee, said the Fair Districts amendments are unworkable.

"If you went to your employer and said, 'I have this great idea for a new machine,' and they said 'how does your machine work?' and you said, 'I have no idea,' they'd laugh you out of the room," said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. "Fair Districts is a plan that sounds great in theory," he said. "But it can't work in actual practice."

Freidin said lawmakers are just trying to preserve their power. "It's really all about politics and not wanting to give up the power to draw districts that help themselves but not the voters. They're looking to protect incumbents and partisan line-drawing. And that's what we're trying to stop."

Lori Parham, AARP Florida state director, said it's not about political parties. "In California, AARP fought Democrats in power to help pass a similar plan. We don't believe either party should own an advantage at the polls."

Under the current system, elected officials draw plans that shift voters around and split communities in order to give incumbents and their parties locks on future elections, Parham said.

"Elections should give voters a fair say about who will represent them. If elections are really about the voters, then the voters should demand that they have an ongoing right to elect representatives who reflect the will of the voters as circumstances and communities change within voters' districts," she said.

Freidin said the ballot measures are about restoring political power to the voters.

"If voters feel helpless, they lose interest in elections," she said. "That's just bad for democracy."

Republicans warn that the Fair Districts proposals would hurt a powerful Democratic constituency by threatening seats held by minority lawmakers. They argue that by pushing for compact districts, the amendments could jeopardize the sprawling districts drawn by past legislatures to increase the number of minority members. Those districts also helped elect Florida's first black representatives to Congress since Reconstruction.

But the Florida NAACP and most black Democratic lawmakers have rejected the Republican claims, saying that Voting Rights Act protections are unaffected and the warnings are designed to muddy support for the measures.

Despite that claim, two minority members of Congress, Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat who is black, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who is Hispanic, filed a lawsuit seeking to strike Amendments 5 and 6. They argued the amendments would jeopardize districts where registration is skewed toward minority voters. The Florida Supreme Court rejected their suit.

After their lawsuit failed, Brown and Diaz-Balart joined with Kurt Browning, former Florida secretary of state, to launch a website, protectyourvote.com, to try to get voters to reject the amendments.

For more information on the Nov. 2 election, check the AARP Florida website.

John Kennedy is a reporter covering government and politics in Florida.

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