While voters’ attention is focused on the Legislature, local officials are busy gerrymandering county and city districts

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest editorial from the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform.

During the Florida Legislature’s redistricting “hearings” crowds of people have come out and sent in comments standing up against gerrymandering. The Legislature, for its part, is attempting to find ways out of honoring the spirit of the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution, approved by 63% of voters in 2010. The amendments, however, only apply to state and federal districts. Despite the rejection of gerrymandering by the public, and the presence of Fair Districts supporters on county and city commissions, localities are busy gerrymandering their own districts while everyone looks to the scandal unraveling at the state level.

Like the state legislature, which is responsible for redistricting state and federal districts after each federal census, Florida’s counties and cities must do the same if they use districts to elect local officials. Often, county and city commissions will discuss and determine redistricting criteria without special notice, avoiding public input and more objective proposals. Only after they have passed the criteria do commissioners then hold advertised public meetings wherein they can educate the public on the redistricting process and only hear feedback within the bounds of the already agreed upon criteria. This is what is presently happening in Palm Beach County, for example, where criteria includes such ambiguous phrases as “Preserve the core of the existing voter’s districts”. The intention seems similar to Sarasota County’s recent use of gerrymandering to insure that incumbents would not be forced to run against one another at the expense of objective redistricting and fair representation.

The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (FLIER) believes that this undercover approach to redistricting by counties and cities is reflective of the undemocratic nature of Florida’s political culture, making the Legislature’s actions wholly unsurprising. It is precisely the criteria used for redistricting that is the most crucial determinant of whether districts will be gerrymandered or drawn for fair representation. Using criteria which bars the consideration of partisan or election data, including incumbents’ addresses, while conforming with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, could invariably produce more compact, contiguous, and objectively drawn districts. Iowa has successfully used such methods since 1981 for state and federal redistricting. The City of West Palm Beach may have been able to spare itself the recent hostility between residents and commissioners over redistricting had the city more actively sought public input at the criteria stage, as opposed to when the prospective maps had already been drawn.

However, local incumbents across the state are keen to draw attention to local redistricting only after they have agreed to the criteria amongst themselves, avoiding the potential of confronting more objective, democratic alternatives or being held accountable. While voters’ attention is on the Legislature, local officials are busy gerrymandering. FLIER urges Florida’s counties and cities, that wish to use districts for local elections, to adopt a transparent and objective redistricting process that starts with criteria development and follows through to the drawing of maps.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.