Redistricting in Fla. and elsewhere

I  have said it before, and I’ll say it again. While many look at control of Congress as the biggest story of the 2010 elections, it’s likely that state legislative races across the nation and some Florida ballot measures will end up having more impact on party and other political fortunes in the long run.

The parties that control the legislatures after the 2010 elections and census will be masters of the redistricting process in many states, deciding which party is advantaged when legislative and congressional lines are redrawn for the next decade. And in Florida, where competing ballot measures pit supposed reformers against insiders who have dueling amendments on the ballot to tailor the districting process, the stakes are already high and evident, months before the election.

Florida potentially illustrates the bias that districting can introduce into the political process. A plurality of Florida’s residents is registered to vote Democrat. But Republicans comfortably control the Legislature and congressional delegations. Of course, it might be that Republicans are better campaigners, or that independents are Republican-leaning conservatives, tilting elections to the GOP. But there is evidence that Republicans, working hand in glove with minority Democrats, have tailored the lines defining districts to their benefit, and to the benefit of minorities. Woe be to the “Cracker Democrat” looking for a safe seat in Florida. He or she is rarer and more endangered than a Silver Springs monkey.

Florida’s leaders have been aware of these issues for years. Gov. Charlie Crist, long ago as a legislator, signed up for a plan to supposedly take partisanship out of the process, putting districting into the hands of a so-called independent commission, as a smattering of other states have attempted. Florida hasn’t succeeded in this yet, and it’s just as well. Supposedly nonpartisan districting agencies are always partisan; they just do a good job of pretending to be nonpartisan. To make a decision that inherently has partisan consequences, there have to be partisan calculations. There should be. To act as if there are none would be like a referee or umpire acting as if he isn’t affected by the home crowd. We know it. He knows it. It’s a part of the game.

Nevertheless, an outfit known as Fair Districts Florida has gathered the petitions necessary to get two amendments on the ballot that would supposedly dilute partisan considerations. These self-anointed “reformers” want the proverbial “compact and contiguous” districts that are hypothetically better. The threatened insiders simply want to get reelected in their comfortable districts, unmoved by criticisms that their districts look like gerrymandered snakes. So they have an alternative measure on the ballot that allows for district lines based on communities of interest, like race and ethnicity.

Frankly, I think both sides are duplicitous and harbor nefarious political motives. But that’s politics. But the Fair Districts folks are more sanctimonious and hypocritical. They claim to be nonpartisan, and have Republicans among their numbers to prove it, but their agenda is strictly Democratic. Their suggestion that districts can be drawn according to wholly nonpartisan and apolitical criteria, is, of course, ridiculous. What’s next? Nonpartisan partisanship?

My own view is that partisanship and race should matter. But a lot more should figure, too, when lines are drawn. For example, I think that communities of interest like suburbanites and rural residents should be given much more respect in the districting process. Currently, the entire process, especially as dictated by reformers, centers around major cities and urban cores. Suburbs are just bit players in the calculations, and rural voters are altogether ignored. There should also be rules that prohibit any smaller city or suburban or rural county from being cynically divided and apportioned to different districts. Doing so saps a city’s or county’s political influence.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.