Fair Districts Florida amendments 5 and 6 seek to stop gerrymandering listen10/21/10 SeÃ¡n Kinane
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Florida voters are deciding on two proposed amendments to the state Constitution that establish new rules for redistricting. Some say the current system is unfair and point to the statistics: over the last six years, only three incumbents have been defeated out of more than 420 races for the Florida Legislature. But opponents say minorities could lose seats.
If passed, Amendments 5 and 6 would establish more guidelines for the Legislature to follow when districts are realigned. They call for contiguous, compact districts that make use of existing municipal boundaries and donâ€™t favor or disfavor incumbents, parties or minorities. Florida ACLU President Michael Pheneger says the measures would reduce gerrymandering.
"Right now thereâ€™s only one rule, and that is they have to be equal in size. Given that they only have one rule, they can literally draw districts anywhere they want and any way they want. They basically draw them to insure incumbency. Thatâ€™s why we have a professional politician class, because right now in large measure, politicians in Florida are running in districts where theyâ€™re largely safe from actually losing an election."
According to the Florida Division of Elections, 650,000 more Democrats are registered to vote in the state than Republicans. Yet the GOP holds a commanding advantage in both the state Legislature and Congress. Pheneger is a long-time Republican, but even though the current gerrymandered districts favor his party, he wants the amendments to pass. Organized labor is on board as well. Aaron Carmella, with the West Central Florida Central Labor Council told a small gathering at a Unitarian Universalist church in Clearwater that some citizens donâ€™t get fair representation from their legislators
"Itâ€™s really about accountability for the representatives back to their constituents. And right now, thereâ€™s nothing in this state really forcing them to do that as theyâ€™re picking their voters, not so much us picking our representatives right now."
Some elected officials have come out against the redistricting amendments, perhaps fearing they will lose their seats. One is U.S. member of Congress Corrine Brown, a Democrat. But Pheneger from the ACLU says her district is a poster child for gerrymandering.
"Well, Corrine Brownâ€™s district is kind of notorious because it begins in Jacksonville and snakes through nine different counties, parts of nine different counties, not all of them, and comes all the way down to the outskirts of Orlando. Nobody would draw a district that way unless they had an ulterior purpose. And the ulterior purpose is either to exclude voters that they donâ€™t want in their district or to include voters that they want in a district to ensure somebodyâ€™s election or reelection."
Critics, including former NAACP Chair Benjamin Chavis, argue the amendments could affect minority representation. Representative Brown agrees.
"For one time we have a voice in every level of government. And this [Amendments 5 and 6] will take these voices away. Youâ€™ve had at-large, square districts, but did not represent communities of interest. And I think communities of interest is key. And to think that for 129 years, a state that has 30% African-Americans and we didnâ€™t have any [elected representatives], and youâ€™re talking about going back to that. It is unacceptable. Itâ€™s crazy."
But supporters say the amendments would safeguard civil rights protections. Leon Russell is vice president of the national board of directors of the NAACP and is chair of the legislative committee of the Florida state conference of NAACP.
"Corrine Brown right now has a 47% minority district; she doesnâ€™t have a majority district, yet sheâ€™s been elected for 17 years to her Congressional district. So these amendments would continue to protect that district. It might not look like it looks today and there might be some different constituents in it. But it still has the ability to influence the election of candidates of the folksâ€™ choice."
Supporters like Pheneger also point out that right now the Voting Rights Act only applies to five counties in Florida but if the so-called Fair Districts amendments pass they would add similar language to the state Constitution.
"The Black Legislative Caucus has voted by majority vote to support the Fair District Amendment[s], as has the NAACP, Democracia, things like that, because they understand that we donâ€™t need to draw districts that way to ensure that we have African-Americans [elected]. In fact the Amendments 5 and 6 each say that you canâ€™t redistrict in ways that have the tendency or the effect of actually diminishing the rights of racial- and language-minorities to basically vote for Legislators of their choosing. That basically parallels the Voting Rights Act."
There is some bipartisan support for the measures, and Fair Districts Florida, the group behind the amendments, has raised more than $4 million. The financial backing comes from a few big donors, including the Democratically-aligned SEIU and National Education Association and a combination of thousands of individual donors. Another political action committee, Protect Your Vote, formed to defeat the measures.
The Republican-controlled state Legislature added a third amendment that, if passed, would have canceled out the other two. But the Florida Supreme Court tossed it off the ballot because it found the wording misleading. Early voting and absentee voting has already begun in Florida. Amendments 5 and 6 need 60% support to pass.