FL's Fair Districts improves redistricting process, but state can go further

Friday's Florida Supreme Court ruling that affirms the state Senate's redistricting boundaries also points out the flaws in the system and the need for additional constitutional changes. One justice called for the establishment of an independent apportionment commission to take the process out of the hands of lawmakers who exert political influence over boundaries. That would lend greater credibility to redistricting.

Voters passed constitutional amendments two years ago to ensure legislative and congressional districts would be compact and not drawn up to protect incumbents or political parties. After the court rejected the Senate's first maps drawn under the new Fair District anti-gerrymandering rules, senators fixed the errors in the eight districts cited by justices.

The new Senate District 26 encompasses a vast swath of Southwest and Central Florida from Anna Maria Island to Lake Okeechobee, mixing the political interests of islanders and retirees with ranchers and farmers across seven counties. And this represents an improvement from the previous nine-county district, yet remains a puzzling attempt at compactness.

In her opinion issued with Friday's court ruling, Justice Barbara Pariente admitted the Fair District standards were not "being fully effectuated" because of time constraints and other pressures. The state constitution only allows the Supreme Court 30 days to review the Legislature's redistricting proposals. Plus, with candidate qualifying for office coming up quickly, from June 4-8, the high court could not delay a decision.

The Fair District requirements, however, place far more complicated issues into consideration, and more time is essential for judicious reviews. Justice Pariente called for constitutional changes instigated either through the Legislature, the 2018 Constitutional Revision Commission or the citizen initiative process -- a remedy that should be pursued. Fair Districts came about as a result of a citizen initiative, and that may be the only way to adopt additional changes since politicians are loath to cede any power.

Florida should also pursue the establishment of an independent apportionment commission as Pariente suggests. Since lawmakers cannot be expected to ignore politics when redrawing districts, a nonpartisan process should be reconsidered, having been discussed by the 1998 Constitutional Revision Commission but then dropped. All this should occur well ahead of the next census.

While the approved Senate districts are not perfect, the boundaries bear much of the fruit of the Fair District standards. One of the organizations in the coalition that issued the court challenge, the Florida League of Women Voters, agreed. President Deirdre Macnab stated the new requirements resulted in more districts with competitive political races, more cities and counties united, and additional districts being geographically compact. (One exception would be the sprawling Senate District 26.)

The Supreme Court unanimously approved the state House redistricting maps in early March, a testament to that chamber's work to follow Fair Districts.

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department issued a determination that the state Senate, House and congressional maps complied with the federal Voting Rights Act, a requirement before final adoption. A Tallahassee-based circuit court then approved the congressional map, but with a caveat. Judge Terry Lewis stipulated that he cannot rule on the constitutionality of the new districts without additional testimony and evidence in a full trial, but the maps can be implemented in the upcoming election. The League of Women Voters promptly vowed to continue the court battle and pursue changes for the 2014 congressional races.

With uncertainty aside, candidates can now proceed in all of these races. The Fair District standards have changed the political landscape, but additional reforms are warranted. Citizens may need to rise up again to accomplish that task.