Every 10 years, the Census Bureau takes a count of Americans, and like clockwork, good-government groups and politicians across the country try to reshape the redistricting process in their states before the bureau announces how their delegations may shrink or grow.
In 2010 those efforts had mixed results, with Florida and California having the most success: Redistricting reform passed by ballot initiative in November. Other states, trying to pass changes through the normal legislative process, were not so fortunate.
Regardless, the goals of redistricting reform cross state and party lines. Reformers hope to create districts that keep racially and economically similar groups together, have contiguous boundaries and won’t give incumbents undue advantages.
For those reasons, lawmakers may be the wrong people to make over the system. Though legislators in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., have attempted to change the partisan way that redistricting has been done, it’s hard to persuade politicians who can redraw their own districts to hand that power over to someone else. Even though Florida voters approved constitutional amendments that take partisanship out of the line-drawing process, a Republican Member and a Democratic Member have filed a lawsuit with a claim that the amendments go too far.
“The reason that people push for taking this out of the hands of the Legislature is there really is an inherent conflict of interest here where politicians are getting to custom-design which voters they want in their districts,” said Gerry Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and a veteran of redistricting-related court battles.
In Florida, voters approved by 63 percent two ballot initiatives amending the state’s constitution regarding redrawing the state’s legislative and Congressional districts. FairDistrictsFlorida.org, with politicians including former Sen. Bob Graham (D), former Attorney General Janet Reno (D), former state Comptroller Bob Milligan (R) and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz (I) at the helm, promoted the initiative. The Congressional amendment would require legislators to draw lines that don’t favor incumbents or certain parties and are contiguous and compact.
But despite broad support for the measure on Election Day, Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) and Corrine Brown (D) filed suit against it immediately after the election.
“You can’t make it part of the constitution to say that these standards are standards that the legislature must carry out,” their attorney, Stephen Cody, told Roll Call.
State legislators are free to consider those priorities but shouldn’t be required to, Cody said. He cited complications with the Voting Rights Act as additional concerns.
Redistricting reform isn’t an issue either party owns. In 2011 Republicans will control both legislative bodies and the governor’s office in Florida, but in California, Democrats will control both legislative bodies and the governor’s office.