With the Mother-of-All-Presidential-Recounts still vivid, current legislative conflict and legal wrangling underway in Florida, dominated by a grand jury-challenged Florida Governor Rick Scott, promises another raucous and rollicking 2012 election in the Sunshine State. Home to the nation’s fourth largest population, the third most recipients on Social Security, the second largest number of Medicare recipients and with the 2010 census adding two delegates to twenty- nine Presidential electors, Florida is considered a Must Win in 2012.
As the Washington Post has identified Florida’s redistricting efforts as the No.1 State to watch, a disdainful Republican-led State Legislature was already ‘analyzing’ and stalling implementation of two newly voter-approved Constitutional amendments regarding State redistricting. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 Gore-Bush decision which overturned the Florida State Supreme Court still in mind, Governor Scott and his legislative cronies are now attempting to pack the State Supreme Court with three additional appointments prior to approval of the new redistricting maps. In addition, a comprehensive “voter suppression’ law and reduction in early voting days, both of which benefit the Democrats, have contributed to Scott’s voter approval rating sinking to 29%.
Despite a 700,000 voter registration margin, the Democratic Party has been largely unable to turn that advantage into electoral success with Florida considered a Republican-leaning State. One look at its convoluted map of State and Congressional Districts with thin ribbons of contiguous parcels creating incoherent districts, ranked by Redistricting the Nation as among the least ‘compact’ in the Nation, explains a Democratic loss of power since the 1990’s in favor of a Republican-dominated State government and a lopsided U.S. House delegation of 19 R’s and 6 Democrats. The State’s 3rd (Brown), 18th (Ros-Lehtinen) and 22nd (West) Congressional Districts have been identified among the ten most gerrymandered Districts in the country.
By 1990, with Democrats asleep at the wheel, Republican National Committee Chair Lee Atwater initiated a brilliant National redistricting strategy to elect more Republicans that twenty years later, still dominates the country’s political landscape.
While the U.S. Constitution established the national standard for Congressional districts assuring political equality with the ‘one (wo)man, one vote” concept that all States adhered to, Republican operatives found a clever way to subvert that Constitutional principle. Shrewdly recognizing every politician’s ultimate goal of self-preservation, Atwater’s strategy was to offer big city urban Democrats a safe District with the combination of voters that would assure re-election in exchange for locking up suburban Districts for Republican candidates thereby removing both urban and suburban Districts from truly competitive races. While the agreement created urban big city districts for minority Democrats many of which would have
gone Democratic anyway, the long term advantage of removing what had been viable Districts went to the Republicans.
One prime example cited in One Party Country (Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten) is that of Corrine Brown, then a member of the Florida State House. Brown negotiated a new Congressional seat that began in Jacksonville and ran 150 miles south to Orlando and in 1992, won that seat. She has been re-elected every two years since and is now legally challenging Florida’s new redistricting amendments.
The result of Atwater’s redistricting efforts in Florida resulted in Republican control of the State Senate in 1994, the State House in 1996 and the election of Jeb Bush in 1998 which set the stage for the 2000 Presidential coup. In addition, the national Republican sweep of the House of Representatives in 1994 was less of an ideological shift than a success of Atwater’s redistricting strategy across the country. Time has proven Atwater’s prescient scheme correct leaving just two dozen House races, out of 435 Congressional Districts, truly up-for-grabs every two years. .
Like most States, the Florida Constitution allows the State Legislature to perpetuate an undemocratic process as it re-apportions itself while the U S. Constitution requires the States to reapportion the House of Representative seats every ten years. Florida’s reapportionment history has been in turmoil since passage of Voting Rights Act of 1965 with violations leading to a State Supreme Court intervention in 1992 which created three black and two Latino-majority House Districts. By 1998, the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission included a proposed Redistricting Commission until pressured by the Republican Party and minority elected officials to withdraw the measure from the 1998 ballot. As a result, ten uncontested House races in 2000 brought another Voting Rights Act challenge in 2002.
In 2010, FairDistrictsFlorida, a non-partisan coalition including the AARP, League of Women Voters, NAACP and Democracia Ahora collected 1.7 million signatures supporting a Constitutional change for Congressional and State Legislative seats which set tighter guidelines on the State Legislature’s ability to gerrymander districts restricting any political party from designing favorable districts.
By Election Day, Florida voters had been paying attention as Amendments 5 (State legislative districts) and 6 (Congressional districts) were approved by 63% as they rejected a confusing Republican-initiated Amendment 7. That same day, Rick Scott, who was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush, was elected Governor with 1.1% of the vote.
If the Amendments function as designed, Republicans fear they might lose as many as five U.S House seats. With a 2010 State population increase of 2.8 million residents (17.6%), Florida will gain two seats during reapportionment which, according to the Pew Hispanic Center is mostly due to an increase in the State’s Latino population.
With a tight timeline to meet the compliance schedule, the State Legislature will convene earlier than usual in January, 2012 and, under FairDistricts, must adopt a new reapportionment map by March 15th after which the State Supreme Court and the Department of Justice must sign off. While State-wide and Congressional Candidates are required to file nominating petitions by June 22, it is possible that new District line will not yet be finalized thereby, once again, favoring incumbents and preventing party primaries.
If the Court determines that the State Legislature maps (Congressional and State Districts) are not sufficient, the State Legislature may hold a Special Session to approve a new plan. If a second try fails, the Court has two months to design its own plan. In other words, final authority for approving Florida’s new redistricting maps to take effect in 2012 rest with basically the same State Supreme Court as 2000.
After election day, FairDistrictsFlorida morphed into FairDistrictsNow which is now embroiled in an on-going challenge as the Republican legislative super-majority use all their wily tricks to undermine the Amendments.
Because of Florida’s history of voter disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that the U.S. Department of Justice review and issue a ‘pre-clearance’ for any new voting-related process Upon passage of the two Amendments in November, then-Governor Charlie Crist formally filed that request to the DOJ before leaving office.
In what some see an act of brazen presumptuousness four days after taking the oath of office, Scott quietly directed his newly appointed Secretary of State, who had been president of a political action committee dedicated to defeating Amendments 5 and 6, to withdraw the popular Amendments from DOJ review. There is good reason for concern here since Florida’s Secretary of State in 2000, Katherine Harris, who double-dutied as George Bush’s state-wide campaign Chair, used her position to avoid a full state-wide recount which ultimately elected her favorite “Godly man.”
After FairDistrictsNow sued Scott and sat-in at the Governor’s office in early February, Scott relented and Republican legislative leaders resubmitted the State’s request for pre clearance approval to the Justice Department including a dissent requesting Justice to disapprove the Amendments as ‘detrimental’ to minority voters. In addition, as the State House was making deep cuts in education and other social safety net programs, allocated $800,000 of public funds to a legal suit to block the publicly-approved Amendments as an ‘unlawful” abrogation of the State Legislature’s authority.
Proponents of the Amendments see further obfuscation and delays as State Senator Dan Gaetz, Chair of the Senate’s Redistricting Committee, promises up to 30 public hearings on the already-voter-approved Amendments around the State, Gaetz’s son, Rep. Matt Gaetz sponsored legislation to allow draft redistricting maps to be kept secret until they are introduced as formal bills. Without proposed new district maps to comment on, FairDistrictsNows questions the purpose of unwarranted costly public hearings.
Scott’s Judicial ‘reform’ proposal which came as a surprise to the State’s Judicial Branch and the Florida Bar Association are seen as an effort to rein in an independent Judiciary. The proposal would add three Justices appointed by the Governor and split the Court into civil and criminal divisions with a Governor-appointed Chief Justice, strip rulemaking from the Court and hand it to the Legislature, pay Judges based on how many cases they decide, allow Senate confirmation of Governor-appointed Justices but automatic appointment if the State Senate does not act and allow the State Legislature to repeal a Court rule.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Ken Bell who was appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush in 2002 predicted that the proposal would "dramatically alter the separation of powers" in State government adding that "these measures will, no doubt, lessen the independence of the Judiciary."
Democrats allege that Republicans are still angry with the State Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to remove three redistricting amendments from the ballot that Justices found “confusing and misleading.” Court reform opponents have challenged Republican efforts as threatening the country’s historic separation of powers and its checks and balances concept designed to protect citizen civil rights and freedoms.
Meeting the legally mandated timeline for new reapportionment maps and to accomplish Scott’s Court packing gimmick will be a challenge as amendments to the State Constitution must have voter approval and the approval process for the reapportionment maps is also legally mandated.
The only potential for Republicans to put these measures on the ballot before the November, 2012 Presidential election would require a three-fourths vote of the Legislature which would necessarily include Democratic votes. To hold the line, the woefully outnumbered Florida Legislative Democrats must develop a built-in BS detector and strategic smarts, together with the courage to go down swinging in the face of a nationally coordinated drive to dismantle the core foundations of civil government.