• Fair Districts Florida wants to take politics out of the way voting districts are drawn.
• The coalition is gathering signatures for two constitutional amendments to address redistricting guidelines.
• Districts would have to be compact, contiguous and respect local government boundaries where possible.
Weirdly shaped congressional and legislative districts, such as U.S. District 3 stretching from Orange to Duval counties, could become a thing of the past if Florida voters adopt a pair of proposed constitutional amendments.
Dozens of voters were turned away from a special election for a state Senate seat this summer when they were told they didn’t live in the district.
“When you have a county split up like we are across three Senate seats, you literally have people on one side of a street who can vote and neighbors across the street who can’t,” said Gertrude Walker, St. Lucie County elections supervisor.
“It’s confusing for voters and for elections officials.”
St. Lucie is one of five counties in Senate District 28, which spreads from the suburbs of Palm Beach County to rural Okeechobee County, across all of Martin County to the oceanfront in Indian River County.
While Florida is home to plenty of exotic species, some of its most unusual creations are the political boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. Every 10 years, the legislature redraws the districts after the U.S. census. Florida lawmakers plan to tackle the job in 2012, but a pair of ballot initiatives could change what is normally a bare-knuckles, politically charged process.
FairDistrictsFlorida.org is working to gather 676,811 signatures by Feb. 1 to get two constitutional amendments on next year’s ballot: one affecting congressional redistricting; the other, legislative. The measures would require that districts be compact, contiguous, and that they respect city and county boundaries when possible while steering clear of favoring incumbents or political parties.
AARP Florida has not taken a position on the referendums.
While Florida law requires that districts be connected, those links can sometimes be just a thin strip of road or waterway.
“The legislature is political, and nothing is more political than redistricting,” said Scot Schraufnagel, who studied redistricting and its impact on competitive legislative races as a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “But if you can require that communities of interest be kept together, that may be the best hope for creating a nonpolitical redistricting process.”
Lawmakers routinely draw districts whose weird boundaries include voters likely to support them while excluding those likely to oppose them.
For example, Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown’s District 3 stretches 140 miles from Jacksonville to Orlando, spanning nine counties.
St. Lucie County—population less than 280,000—is crosshatched by three state Senate districts, four state House districts and two U.S. congressional districts.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Florida, but the political boundaries drawn in 1992 and 2002 helped tip the power balance to the GOP.
Republican legislative leaders take a dim view of the measures.
“Trying to take politics out is difficult,” said state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. “One person’s definition can be different from another’s and it could lead to lawsuits that throw redistricting to the courts to decide.”
Although much of its fundraising is from Democratic-allied individuals and organizations, FairDistrictsFlorida.org is bipartisan. The group has six honorary chairs, three Democrats and three Republicans.
“We don’t see this as a Democratic or Republican issue,” said campaign chair Ellen Friedin. “But we do think the way redistricting is done now damages democracy in Florida.”
John Kennedy, a writer living in Tallahassee, has covered Florida’s capital for 23 years