The American democracy is more vulnerable than ever.
For many years, one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by our system of government has been under siege: the right to vote and to have that vote count. Voter ID laws are among the scurrilous ways with which some infringe upon this right. Unconstitutional and un-American as voter ID laws often are, their impact pales in comparison to that of gerrymandering.
According to Gallup Polls, more voters identify as Democrat than Republican. Yet Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, most state legislatures, governorships and many town councils, too.
So why are we seeing so much red? ’Cause the Republican Party has mastered the dark art of drawing district maps that favor its candidates with such precision that it has essentially hijacked our democracy. They don’t even pretend otherwise. They call it RedMap, shorthand for Redistricting Majority Project.
In part thanks to #FloridaMan and #FloridaWoman, here in the Land of the Mouse, we are accustomed to being on the leading edge of nearly everything that’s wrong in this country. If you don’t believe me, Google “Florida leads the nation in”; you’ll see a whole host of results like “deaths caused by lightning,” “fraud, ID theft,” “boating accidents” and “new HIV cases.” (Folks may be sick, dying and getting scammed, but the most important thing is that we’re leading in “job growth,” right, Governor Rick Scott?)
Happily, one area in which Florida does not lead the nation, at least not any longer, is gerrymandering. And it’s all thanks to voters like you and the efforts of some dedicated folks who would not, could not, accept the status quo of unfair representation in government.
I recently got to pick the brain of Miami attorney Ellen Freidin, one of the champions of democracy whose efforts culminated in the successful ballot initiative in 2010 that amended the state constitution to outlaw drawing districts to favor a political party or incumbent. Freidin is also one of the speakers at the upcoming TEDxJacksonville talks.
Freidin put the threat gerrymandering poses to democracy in the simplest terms. “It takes away the citizens’ right to choose their representative, and it essentially decides the election before elections are even held, before qualifying.”
After voters approved the amendment, the battle was far from over, however. Subsequently, the Republican Party created a district map that would maintain its advantage, which it surreptitiously submitted through a public portal. “Our legislature actually worked very hard to violate those laws and … keep it from the public,” Freidin said.
It was a sneaky, shady, underhanded effort to circumvent the will of the voters. And it almost worked. It took four years of litigation, but eventually the map was thrown out.
“We were able to prove in court that the legislative leadership actually developed a scheme to circumvent the Florida Constitution and hide it from the public, and they did it by hiring Republican consultants to draw maps which were vetted at the highest level in Washington,” Freidin said.
(It bears mention that Democrats are not innocent of partisan gerrymandering in states they control. But, like trending on social media for photo ops in which every single person looks as if they’ve been carved from cream cheese, Republicans are much better at it.)
After the November elections, some Floridians were confused. With anti-gerrymandering the law of the land, many had expected Democrats to, at long last, gain some serious ground in the state legislature.
Instead, they picked up one measly seat. Certainly the Trump effect (similar to diarrhea, except it’s of the mouth) is in part to blame. But so is history. “Florida had been a one-party state for so long that the Democratic Party doesn’t really have a bench,” Freidin said.
See, reversing long-term disadvantages does not occur overnight; rather, it takes years to work through the cast of incumbents, who statistically are more likely to keep their seats, and to groom and train future candidates for higher office through local party systems, while simultaneously fighting off efforts of politicians, the governor, special interest groups and others to undermine fair districts.
Advocates are also closely following the recently reconvened state Constitutional Revision Commission. At least one of the legislative leaders who appointed members has said he wants to “fix” redistricting, according to Freidin. That kind of language makes fair districts supporters’ spidey senses get all kinds of tingly.
Partisan gerrymandering is a national problem so pervasive that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Wisconsin case about it next term, which will be a rare second time it considers a single issue in just over a decade. But no matter what it decides, if Florida is an example, we cannot take our eyes off whoever draws district maps for a second. Our democracy depends on it.
TEDxJacksonville, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at The Florida Theatre, 128 East Forsyth St., Jacksonville.