Anatomy of a Gerrymander

To many Floridians, tasking elected representatives to draw nonpartisan voting districts seems a lot like tasking the fox to guard the henhouse … every 10 years feathers fly.

“Reapportionment, or how we divide our districts for the Legislature and Congress, is one of the most important things we do because it determines who you can vote for in your district,” said Jon Mills, a UF professor of law, dean emeritus and director of the Levin College of Law Center for Governmental Responsibility.

Mills said Florida’s constitution directs the Legislature to review and redraw voting districts in the second year after each U.S. Census. The constitutional ideal of reapportionment is to draw districts to fairly represent the state’s population growth or movement. Unfortunately, legislators have historically used the opportunity to redistrict voting blocks to shore up re-election for themselves or their party. This history of gerrymandered reapportionment has resulted in legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, supporting redistricting that effectively splits votes down partisan lines.

“When I was in the Legislature, I sat on a reapportionment committee. Were people drawing districts to favor themselves or their political party? Absolutely,” said Mills. “There is a mutual self-interest in members of a legislative body to help each other that doesn’t necessarily favor one party or the other.”

Mills is now serving as counsel on a legal team representing that includes CGR staff attorney Tim McLendon. The organization is the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to set standards the Legislature must use when redrawing district boundaries.

The title and summary of the amendment, which was argued before the Florida Supreme Court Nov. 6 as Case No. SC08-1149, reads: STANDARDS FOR LEGISLATURE TO FOLLOW IN CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING Congressional districts or districting plans 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.

The primary goal of the amendment — if the Supreme Court approves it as a ballot measure for a 2010 general election — is to establish nonpartisan reapportionment standards by which districts would be drawn. These standards would seek to assure continuity in redistricting so that boundaries are contiguous and compact, preventing district lines from being drawn in such a way that cherry-picks and  patches together disparate areas that reliably vote one way or the other.

When districts are drawn to embrace contiguous communities, they include a broader range of constituencies and are not strictly split by racial or partisan lines. The theory is that legislators and congressmen elected to office from such districts would be less partisan and more balanced in their views, resulting in an approach to government that is less divisive and more representative, Mills said.

“I think there are people of good will on both sides of the aisle who really want to see the process be as transparent and fair as possible,” said Stephen N. Zack (JD 71), a partner in the Miami firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, which also represents “Obviously, there are others
who just want to win, and that is not the standard by which we should want to have an election.”