FAIR DISTRICTS Politics is about power. The party that has the most votes gets its candidates elected. The more candidates a party has in the Florida Legislature, the more control it has over the legislative and congressional districts, since it’s the Legislature that draws the district boundaries every 10 years.
Up until 2000, the Democrats were able to protect their lawmakers and gerrymander the districts to keep their power. The only requirement they had to meet was that the new districts be “either contiguous, overlapping or identical territory.”
The political power shifted in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Republicans gained control of the Florida Senate, thanks to many Democratic lawmakers switching parties, and two years later, the GOP had a majority in the Florida House—the first time since 1874.
The Florida Constitution requires the Legislature, by joint resolution at its regular session in the second year after the Census is conducted, to apportion the state into senatorial districts and representative districts. The Republican-controlled Legislature had its first crack at redistricting in 2002, and it masterfully carved up northwest Florida.
The lawmakers made sure W.D. Childers never returned to their chambers by splitting his district horizontally into two districts and, thereby, giving control to Okaloosa County. The one-time Democratic stronghold, District 3, which had been held either by Buzz or DeeDee Ritchie for 12 years, was gerrymandered to protect Holly Benson, who won the seat in 2000 when DeeDee Ritchie ran for State Senate.
To offset the Democratic and minority votes, the lawmakers included Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Christian College inside District 3. The redrawn lines paid off in 2008 when Republican Clay Ford defeated Democratic challenger Lumon May, 33,501-30,751. Two precincts returned Ford to Tallahassee: Gulf Breeze, which gave its former city councilman 2,036 more votes than May, and PCC, which had a 1,830 voting margin for the Republican.
This could all change if the voters pass Amendments 5 and 6 this November. The two amendments to the Florida Constitution cover the boundaries for the legislative and congressional districts respectively. They state districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”
It’s that last sentence that could really make a difference in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Our Senate districts would have to be more compact and would no longer stretch to Bay County. The two counties could get their own representatives in the Florida House, and the northwest Florida legislative delegation might be more reflective of the demographics and interests of the people they serve. It’s possible that the City of Pensacola might even get its own legislator.
The Florida Legislature did try to undermine these amendments with one of their own. Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court removed it from the ballot. The judges saw through the sham and wrote, “While purporting to create and impose standards upon the Legislature in redistricting, the amendment actually eliminates actual standards and replaces them with discretionary considerations. Thus, we conclude that the title is misleading….”
Amendments 5 and 6 are a chance to restore common sense to our districts, which is why this paper supports them. Maybe we can tackle runoffs for the primaries next.