L-199 helps reform Florida redistricting laws

L-199 volunteers work to help pass constitutional amendments curtailing gerrymandering in Florida.

Constitutional changes will limit gerrymandering

A NON-PARTISAN group seeking to reform Florida’s redistricting laws has cited Local Lodge 199 (Jacksonville, Fla.) as one of the key players in its successful ballot initiative last November. The initiative, backed by Fair Districts Florida, included two constitutional amendments aimed at discouraging the practice of gerrymandering. It passed by more than 60 percent of the vote.

Fair Districts Florida campaign chair Ellen Frieden, in a letter to L-199 BM-ST Carl Ferguson, said, “You and your local are at the top of the list (of organizations that partnered with her group.) You . . . were there every step of the way. You and your union have brought benefit to the people of the state of Florida for decades to come.”

Ferguson said his lodge teamed up with Fair Districts Florida over a two-year period, offering support through signature petitions, sign-making, and radio advertising. “Florida is one of the most gerrymandered states in America,” he said.

Although the practice is legal, gerrymandering is considered by many to be unfair to voters. Parties in power can use it to carve out population segments that will most likely elect their candidates, sometimes to the detriment of racial minorities and other groups. In certain areas of the country, gerrymandering has all but eliminated political opposition, leaving some voters with no real chance of electing a candidate who reflects their interests.

The constitutional amendments passed by Floridians assert that no redistricting plans will be drawn “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent” or “with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process . . .” The amendments also require that districts be contiguous, as equal in population as feasible, and compact. In addition, districts must use existing city, county, and geographical boundaries where feasible.

Two U.S. representatives from Florida have filed suit to prevent one of the amendments from becoming law, arguing that it interferes with their official duties. The Republican-controlled Florida House is also opposing the same amendment and is seeking to intervene in the lawsuit.

While the Florida amendments discourage gerrymandering, the changes leave redistricting in the hands of the state legislature and governor. By contrast, California passed a proposition last Nov. 2 that removes redistricting entirely from elected officials and places it in the hands of a commission created for that specific purpose.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years, after the national census has been completed. The next redistricting process will occur in 2012, ahead of the national elections in November.

In 36 states, redistricting is performed by state legislatures with the approval of the governor. In Florida, both branches of government are under Republican control. According to some political analysts, Republicans can expect to gain at least a dozen U.S. House seats in the November 2012 elections as a result of to redistricting.

At least in Florida, those gains may be minimized, thanks in part to the political activism of L-199.