How Florida Voters Beat Partisan Scheming

Florida gets something right about voting.

Gerrymandering, like the poor, will always be with us. At least that's the conventional wisdom, confirmed decennially by state legislators and left unchallenged by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in Florida, the practice has run into a roadblock: voters.

In 2010, Florida voters passed ballot initiatives prohibiting the state legislature from considering partisanship or incumbency in drawing legislative maps, while also requiring districts to be as compact as possible. Last month, a state judge ruled that the legislature had violated that law in drawing two congressional districts: one that benefited an incumbent Democrat, by increasing the district's concentration of black voters, and one that benefited an incumbent Republican, by increasing the district's concentration of white voters. The judge ordered the state legislature to come up with new lines by Aug. 15 -- just 11 days before the Florida primary is scheduled to take place. It was the right decision.

One of the districts, Judge Terry Lewis noted, is "not compact, bizarrely shaped, and does not follow traditional political boundaries," at one point narrowing to the width of a highway. That is textbook gerrymandering, and because of the 2010 law, it is illegal. Lewis also concluded that "Republican consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the districting process." That became embarrassingly clear during the trial, which pulled back the curtain on the parties' backroom chicanery, complete with an e-mail trail that was "systematically deleted."

Lewis is expected to decide on Aug. 20 whether to force the state to use a newly revised map for this year's elections. Whatever map is used, the case marks an important turning point in the battle against gerrymandering, which dates to at least 1842 and a federal law requiring congressional districts to be contiguous. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering could in theory run afoul of the Constitution, but failed to agree on what the standard should be for arriving at that judgment. In 2004, the Supreme Court revisited the issue and found that "no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating political gerrymandering have emerged."

That is now changing, as Florida and other states adopt nonpartisan sandards. In most states (including Florida), legislators are in charge of drawing district lines. But a handful have turned the job over to independent commissions. California's experiment with such a commission, adopted by referendum in 2010, has so far produced positive results, though not necessarily for incumbents. As the Florida case shows, who makes the maps is less important than what rules they must follow.

In November, voters in New York will have an opportunity to adopt a state constitutional amendment that would turn district-drawing duties over to an independent commission and bind it to nonpartisan requirements such as those in Florida. Astoundingly, two of the state's good-government groups oppose the change, because they don't consider the commission sufficiently independent. They should reconsider.

Congress should also take action. The Constitution authorizes Congress to "make or alter" regulations that would limit gerrymandering, and for a brief period in the early 1900s Congress required districts to be compact. Those who seek to restore strength to the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court neutered last year, should push legislation based on the Florida model.

Fourteen years ago, Judge Lewis played a role in the most controversial election case in American history, overseeing the recount that the Supreme Court stopped in Bush v. Gore. His current case, by showing that gerrymandering can be checked, may prove to be no less consequential.

--Editors: Francis Barry, Katy Roberts.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net