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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Bracken, redistricting

Hubby and I are extremely fortunate to have met Larry Bracken when the three of us were young back in Arkansas. He moved to Florida before we did, to do PR for what then was Pensacola Junior College. Decades later, Larry retired as the dean of higher education lobbyists in Tallahassee. He started a free electronic news service for friends who had mutual interests soon after the internet began, and I’ve gotten those news links every day since -- including weekends and holidays and come hell or high water. Literally. Larry even managed to keep up the routine during hurricanes that hit his Gulf Breeze home, through the death of his first wife, and during remarriage. I’m sure Diane was thrilled to have the news go out in the early mornings of their honeymoon.

I’m writing this on Monday, and by the time you read it on Friday, you may already have seen the story I clicked on first in Larry’s news today. It’s from the Bradenton Herald, but written by the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Caputo, so it probably will run locally, too. I clicked because I was intrigued by the title: “Redistricting Trial Shows Joke Is On Florida Voters.” Caputo offers more detail than I intend to here, but the story is about the ongoing trial in Tallahassee, which already is historic. The League of Women Voters is the lead plaintiff, suing the Florida legislature for violating the intent of the “Fair Districts” amendment that we voters added to our state constitution in 2010.

Just in case you’ve forgotten your high-school civics, we Americans have counted ourselves in a census every ten years since 1790. The US Constitution, adopted in 1789, required that. “Conservatives” who think that the census is a nosy federal imposition on their privacy forget that the Constitution they claim to revere mandates the census – and for very good reasons. Its writers were well aware that some members of the British Parliament “represented” areas of England that were depopulated – some of these “rotten boroughs” literally had fallen into the sea. Yet these rural members of the House of Commons could outvote members elected by the masses who moved to cities after the Industrial Revolution.

Our futuristic founders – who axiomatically were NOT conservatives – foresaw that without a regular census, the situation soon could become even worse in America, which had vast unknown land to the west. Without a method of regularly comparing population, representatives from low-population states such as Vermont and New Hampshire could outvote those from bigger future states such as Ohio. So every year that ends in zero, we count ourselves and redistribute House seats according to population shifts.

* * *

Until air conditioning, Florida’s population was so low that as late as 1940, we were entitled to just two House seats. The eastern district ran from the Georgia border down through the Keys, while the other one took in the entire Gulf and west coasts, from Pensacola down to the tip of the peninsula. Our population began to soar with World War II, and after the 2010 census, we now are entitled to 27 House seats. We tie with New York, which also has 27 House members, as the third-biggest congressional delegation; we follow only California and Texas.

The trial in Tallahassee is about whether our current congressional districts were drawn with the intent of openness and fairness, as mandated by the constitutional amendment that Florida voters adopted in 2010. The statistics would indicate appreciable unfairness. Although more people have been registering Republican in recent decades, Democrats never have lost their majority of registered voters. The state’s election site shows that 39% of us are Democrats, 35% Republican, and 26% are unaffiliated or with minor parties. Moreover, a majority of Floridians voted for Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012. Yet despite a statewide balance between the parties that is nearly equal, we are sending 17 Republicans and just 10 Democrats to represent us in Washington.

That is because of gerrymandering, drawing district lines that ignore geography so that politicians can pick their voters, not vice versa. In our area, for example, the southern portion of St. Pete that includes many African Americans has been excluded from that peninsula and tied to Tampa. That makes it easier for a Democrat to win the Tampa seat, but Kathy Castor doesn’t need this artificiality to win. Instead, her seat logically should go further north to Carrollwood, where she grew up, but which now is represented by Gus Bilirakis from Tarpon Springs. Or she could go further east to the Brandon area where I live, but instead I’m represented by Dennis Ross of Polk County.

Temple Terrace has been the worst example of gerrymandering: that little municipality has been divided three ways, with parts represented by Bilirakis, Ross, and Castor. No one knows who their member of Congress is, and that’s just the way the line-drawers want it. Their whole point is not to keep municipalities or even counties with mutual interests intact, but instead to keep things unnecessarily complex so that incumbents can play insider baseball. There’s no accountability if no one knows who’s in charge, and that works well for them.

These guys may talk a good game about transparency and sunshine, but the evidence in the trial is showing that in fact they worked in the shadows to draw these unfair districts. Especially Senate President Don Gaetz virtually laughed out loud at the League lawyer who inquired about secret meetings. According to Marc Caputo, his arrogant reply was that “it wasn’t really a closed meeting. ‘The door was open.’”

The joke is supposed to be on us, but maybe the League will prevail. It’s happened before: some of you may remember when the courts forced Hillsborough County to redraw lines for our county commission. That’s how Pam Iorio first got elected. Congressional filing is over for 2014, but I’m holding out hope that the judiciary will save us from our legislature and give us another shot at electing a more representative House of Representatives.
I should add that I am a member of the League of Women Voters, which began when women won the vote in 1920. The League always has been and remains strictly non-partisan; it studies issues, but does not endorse candidates. I pay my dues (most years), but never have served on its board because board members cannot participate in campaigns. This suit is in keeping with League tradition: it is not about partisanship; it’s about creating sensible districts that truly reflect communities.

* * *

Before the Fair Districts amendment went on the ballot, I talked to several people about writing it differently. Everyone else thought that taking re-districting out of the hands of the incumbents in the legislature was too great a leap, but I’d still like to propose that. Legislators have enough to do, and it’s almost impossible for them to do this task without considering their own self-interest. The current situation allows the fox not only to guard the henhouse, but also draw the blueprints for the henhouse.

What I think would be a better system is to allow the state’s Supervisors of Elections draw the maps. They could then present them to the legislature, which could vote them up or down, but not tinker with the lines. Supervisors would have to work together on this, of course, but those 67 people, who are elected by the voters of their county, would be the most non-partisan body possible. They not only have the trust of the people who elected them, they also know the details of their communities.

As it is, every election holds almost countless possibilities for unintentional errors. The people who live across the street from you, for example, may be in a different district for school board, county commission, the state House or Senate, and even Congress. Some urban supervisors have to create hundreds of “ballot styles,” the term they use for these differences that occur even in the same precinct. This understandably increases the chances that a poll worker will give you the wrong ballot, and you will miss your opportunity to vote in a race – or vote in one that you aren’t entitled to. Unlike legislators, supervisors live with these details every day, and no other body could do such a good job with drawing districts fairly.

While I’m on this soapbox, another of my lifelong but unfulfilled goals is taking polling places out of places of worship. We were shocked when we moved to Florida and discovered this practice. Actually, our first polling place was the Seffner Community Center, which soon was torn down, and then we voted at the historic Seffner Schoolhouse, which has been preserved but isn’t used for voting. Then we voted at Mango Recreation Center, but although neither our home nor the previous polling places have moved, we have been assigned in recent decades to St. Francis Catholic Church or the Mango Baptist Church. I’ve wondered how my Jewish friends feel when they cast their ballots under the watchful eyes of Jesus on the wallpaper. I just checked the SOE’s list of polling places, and no, there don’t seem to be any in a mosque.

That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, but more important, polling places should be in tax-supported facilities just because taxpayers need to get into those places and become acquainted with where their money goes. My parents voted at the high school gym in Minnesota, while gym classes took to the outdoor playground. When I taught in Massachusetts, we ate box lunches in our classrooms while voters took over the cafeteria. We social studies teachers took the opportunity to march our students down there to witness the process and learn.

As early voting and vote-by-mail increase, there will be even less need for polling places on election day, but we could implement this change now. Hillsborough County has about 350 precincts and some 250 schools; if we add recreation centers, libraries, and the many other publicly owned facilities in the county, there is no need to pay rent to churches. As I said, it would do citizens good to see the neighborhood places that their taxes support, and especially schools also offer a great opportunity to educate young people in civic responsibility. Let’s go for it.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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