Democracy itself is under attack in Florida. Those opposed: our very own politicians. It appears that the wave of democracy ushered in by the overwhelming approval (63%) of amendment six, which appeared on the 2010 ballot, by the people of Florida – known as the Fair Districts Amendment – is being stalled by the dam of our republican political system (not to be confused with the Republican Party but our representatively-based political system). Instead of adhering to the clear wishes of the people, Florida politicians are fighting the measure in court and through sniveling bureaucratic procedures designed to disenfranchise the people. All for their own gain.
Many of you saw the measure on the ballot which read:
“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.”
Appealing to our common sensibilities, the voters of Florida voted to approve this measure, sending it to the legislature for approval from Washington and to enact the proposals. We are still waiting for this change.
It’s about the Money and Power
Politicians literally began fighting the people immediately. Having already contested the constitutionality of the ballot initiative in May of 2010 – losing in a Supreme Court decision a few months later – Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) and Rep. Corrine Brown (D) announced they were again suing to block the measure, just hours after it was shown that the amendment had been approved by the people. These lawmakers suggest that the amendments are unconstitutional because they call for compact districts, and people, especially minority communities, do not live in compact areas. They are speaking of their own so-called “majority-minority” districts. Created mostly in the 1990s, these districts attempt to over-represent racial minorities to combat years of racial oppression. While sympathy for this argument is understandable and has legitimacy in purpose, the constitutionality issue does not. Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States or Florida’s Constitution, does it say that congressional districts cannot be compact, and one cannot even suggest that it is somehow in the spirit of the constitution.
Not only is this argument inherently flawed (see below) but the Plaintiffs seem to be bankrolled by suspect, albeit unknown, interests. According to a report by The Florida Independent, Brown requested approval from the Standards Committee to create the “Corrine Brown Legal Expense Trust.” The trust would accept “contributions for legal fees and expenses incurred … in connection with [her] official duties and position in Congress.” This is not only an abuse of a Trust, but it is used so that Brown can raise money from all sorts of special interests without disclosing who they are. Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel put it perfectly in his article saying, “Brown, the Jacksonville Democrat more interested in preserving her gerrymandered district than promoting fair elections, sent out an invite this week asking donors for as much as $5,000 to fund her lawsuit against Fair Districts. Never mind that 63 percent of Floridians supported this constitutional amendment. Brown says she needs ‘urgent help.’ [meaning money] Lobbyists were instructed to bring that ‘help’ to Johnny’s Half-Shell on Washington’s North Capitol Street next Wednesday.”
Newly elected Governor Rick Scott (R) is not immune from blame either. Even before taking office, Gov. Scott pulled a request for approval of the amendment filed on December 10, 2010 by former Gov. Charlie Crist. In response to this foot dragging, Fair Districts Florida filed a lawsuit on February 3, 2011 against Gov. Rick Scott which sought to force the governor to process the proper paperwork. The governor responded by stating that the pulling of the measure did not slow the process, as the Florida State Legislature was months away from working on state redistricting and the governor was using the time to “have thoughtful consideration of the policy.” This is Tallahassee speak for, “we want to make sure our party is still advantaged.” Eventually, on March 29, 2011, the House and Senate finally agreed to send the paperwork to the Justice Department for approval, which was approved on May 31, 2011.
Given the outcry and anger over this issue and posturing by politicians from the people, the Florida Legislature is conducting public hearings so individuals can speak directly to their representatives. The next hearing in Orlando is to be held on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 from 2:00 – 4:00 PM and 6:00 – 8:00 PM at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center.
Why the Powerful are Wrong and What it Means
The constitution lays out a House of Representatives who are elected by districts which are to be drawn by legislators to be relatively representative of the population. Almost immediately it was found that the vague nature of this principle meant that already elected officials – known as incumbents – could draw these lines to etch out a district that would be advantageous to themselves or their party. This process is known as Gerrymandering, and it is not only found in America. Although sometimes utilized, as is argued by Brown and Diaz-Balart suggest, to “be more representative of minority communities,” the real purpose is to promote the power of the incumbent or his/her party. The Fair Districts Amendment was aimed at stripping this egregious power from the hands of unscrupulous, power-hungry politicians.
Instead of attempting to capture otherwise underrepresented groups, the biggest impact of gerrymandered districts is a decrease in political competition. The U.S. System of first past the post (rather than instant run-off) political competition means that invariably the competition is between only 2 people or parties. Combine this with districts which are designed to favor one over the other and after a few election cycles; some districts become “safe” districts, where they always, or nearly always, vote for the same party or candidate. This demands less money and influence coming from national organizations, and shines the spotlight on small and usually minor districts that may only represent a fairly small or homogenous electorate, but make for great political theater. A second influence of gerrymandering is lower voter turnout. Since the campaigns in gerrymandered districts are usually “safe,” the people see even less reason to go out and vote –or at minimum – even have a genuine campaign. This is even truer for challenging candidates, which shows the real power and purpose behind the gerrymandering system, incumbent power.
In 2002, political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann found that only four non-incumbent challengers were able to defeat their incumbent rivals in Congressional seats in the preceding election. This is the lowest number in modern American history. Sadly, the overall effect is that as districts become more “safe” due to gerrymandering, lower voter turnout, and outside powerful influences, therefore, the principle of accountability becomes less powerful. This opens the door to all sorts of corrupt and undue influences on politicians, pushing the people for whom they are supposed to represent, to the wayside. The Member of Congress, envisioned as a representative of the people who is able to be recalled by the people, becomes a representative of powerful and wealthy interests whose feet stay a safe distance from the fire of public scrutiny.
In reality, the front proposed by Rep. Brown is much more appealing to our sensibilities than Gov. Scott’s. However, both are attempting to seek ways to ensure they remain in their positions of power. They are both lying to the people, but in different ways. It is this impulse to lie to cover up the truth, combined with the gerrymandering of districts which limits the effect of popular movements and the political power of the people themselves. That is – quite sadly – not the most despicable part of all of this. The real issue is that we have an 18th century electoral and political system which is designed to enshrine the rich and powerful with ever more riches and ever more power. For our political system and its members; if this continued aristocracy needs to be maintained in spite of and off the backs of the people – so be it. And why not: our economic system does just the same, and it appears to work just fine. Or does it?