Martin Dyckman: Fla. should adopt Iowa’s system for drawing political districts

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Democracy in Florida is still a work in progress, even as to the basic principle that every citizen’s vote should count the same.

It has been half a century since the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to rural rule by which legislators representing less than a fifth of Florida’s population held more than half the seats.

But some things never change no matter how much they seem to. The urban legislators who succeeded the so-called Pork Choppers were no less disposed to keep themselves in power. Even equal districts could be rigged to control the election results.

So it was another big step forward last week when Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis in Leon County tossed out the current congressional districting plan.

He ruled that Republican legislative leaders had violated Florida’s “Fair Districts” initiatives when they let consultants manipulate the maps to the benefit of two incumbents.

One is a Republican, Daniel Webster, who was threatened by demographic changes in his district.

The other is a Democrat, Corrine Brown. Although she was in no danger at all, they packed her already weirdly shaped district with even more minority voters. The motive was to make adjoining districts safer for Republican candidates.

That technique accounts for the lopsided Republican majorities in the congressional delegation as well as in both houses of the Legislature.

The courts were unable or unwilling to smack it down until the people voted the Fair Districts initiatives into the Constitution four years ago.

Lewis said that the plaintiffs might not have been able to prove their case without certain documents, belonging to the consultants, which the Republicans were desperate to suppress.

Three politically appointed judges at the First District Court of Appeal ordered Lewis to ignore those documents. It took an emergency ruling of the state Supreme Court for Lewis to consider them behind closed courtroom doors. Whether the public ever sees what he saw depends on further rulings by the Supreme Court.

If there were ever any doubt of the necessity of protecting the courts from partisan politics, this case is the proof.

Lewis alluded, however, to a problem that even the Fair Districts initiatives can’t solve:

“A law passed by the legislature is entitled to a presumption of constitutionality. The burden to show otherwise is on those who challenge the law.”

A judge can decide only whether a plan is invalid, not whether the Legislature could have passed a better one.

So long as the Legislature’s hands are the scales, they’ll try to tip them.

Litigation entails too much time and expense. Assuming an appeal, at least a second election will take place under the system Lewis found to be rigged. A challenge to state Senate districts is still pending two years after the plan was enacted.

Moreover, the legislative map is infected with old gerrymandering that’s beyond the practical reach of any court.

There is one state, Iowa, where the process is nonpolitical and fair from the outset, and where the courts haven’t had to get involved.

Since 1981, every Iowa redistricting has been designed by a small team of nonpartisan professionals. Although they’re employed by the Legislature, their role is defined by the law.

They’re not allowed to consider voter registrations, where officeholders live, previous election returns, or any data other than census head counts. The controlling criteria are population equality, compactness of districts, and matching districts to existing political boundaries.

The Legislature and governor can reject the plans, but after three strikes the Supreme Court takes over. That hasn’t been necessary.

Incumbents aren’t protected. This year’s Iowa congressional plan put two Democrats against each other and did the same to two Republicans. The legislative plan left 14 of 100 House districts without an incumbent.

Iowa’s example is for Florida to follow. There are differences, it’s true. Florida’s elongated geography doesn’t facilitate compact districts as neatly as Iowa’s does. Minority populations aren’t as much a factor in Iowa. And Florida’s hyper-partisan politics would complicate the selection of a neutral staff.

But such problems can be overcome. Staff selection, for example, could be made to depend on mutual agreement by the political parties. Legislative salaries could be escrowed to make them agree.

Nothing else matters as much as getting districting right. As Lewis noted in his order:

“The case before me is of the highest importance, going as it does to the very foundation of our representative democracy.”

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.