With the 2020 census likely to trigger a new wave of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, the innovative reform adopted by Florida and used this year for the first time offers a path toward a more level playing field – if other states will heed Florida’s story.
For the third election in a row, House Republicans got bonus seats in 2016, thanks in good part to their shrewd RedMap national gerrymander strategy of 2011. This year, the GOP won 49.7 percent of the national popular vote for the House, but garnered 55.2 percent of the House seats.
In Florida, however, the tide turned the other way. In January, Florida’s House delegation will include five new members whose road to victory was opened by a bold and bruising nine-year battle to throw out the partisan stacking of election districts by the Republican-led Legislature and replace it with more competitive, voter-friendly districts.
In south-central Orlando, former police chief Val Demings, a black woman, won the seat held for three terms by tea party Republican Dan Webster, who moved to a Republican-leaning district. In north Orlando-Winter Park, Rollins College economist Stephanie Murphy, a newcomer to politics, upset 12-term incumbent Republican John Mica.
Around St. Petersburg, former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, won a remapped district from Republican Rep. Dave Jolly. In north Florida, two Democratic incumbents were also ousted in districts redrawn by Florida courts. One was replaced by a Democrat; the other, by a Republican.
The Florida story is a classic case of reform powered by a grass-roots citizen movement and computer sleuthing that exposed a clandestine Republican gerrymander. The pivotal shift came in 2010 with a popular referendum that for the first time in American history did what the U.S. Constitution fails to do: It outlawed the manipulation of election district lines “with the intent to favor” one political party over the other, or to protect incumbents.
Even so, reform was no slam dunk. In defiance of amendments to the Florida Constitution passed by a supermajority of voters, the Republican Legislature carried out a covert and illegal gerrymander of congressional and legislative districts in 2011 while pretending to obey the law.
The Republican political scam hinged on outside political consultants creating maps stacked in favor of the GOP, with murky code names like Frankenstein, Schmedloff and Perfect Pieces, which were passed to legislators by unwitting intermediaries. It took four years of legal trench warfare to crack open the conspiracy and to persuade Florida courts to outlaw and rewrite the fraudulent gerrymander.
Five previous gerrymander reform campaigns in Florida had failed. In 2006, reform groups asked Ellen Freidin, a politically savvy Florida attorney with statewide campaign experience, to lead a new drive. Freidin was sympathetic, but wary. As a legal expert, she thought she could fix the legal flaw that sank the previous reform. But soon Freidin found she was pulling together a new coalition called Fair Districts Florida that embraced Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and minority groups such as the Florida NAACP and a Latino group, Democracia Ahora, Democracy Now.
Freidin discovered what some other states have overlooked – that black and Latino leaders oppose proposals for a bipartisan citizen commission to do redistricting, because they fear that minority political interests will not be protected. So Freidin dropped that idea and focused instead on a legal standard that would explicitly bar partisan gerrymandering.
To get two reform measures on the ballot in 2010, one for legislative districts and the other for congressional districts, Fair Districts Florida needed to collect 1.7 million signatures. Next in an effort that ultimately cost $9 million came a high-profile media campaign with TV ads of foxes guarding hen houses, mocking legislators for pretending to be fair while creating monopoly districts to keep themselves in office.
Freidin recruited a bipartisan leadership, won editorial endorsements and pro-reform cartoons from every major newspaper in the state, and she personally went toe-to-toe with legislative leaders who tried publicly to intimidate her and discredit the reforms.
On Nov. 2, 2010, Fair Districts Florida achieved the well-nigh impossible. In a midterm election that elected a Republican governor and Legislature, the reform coalition won an astounding 62.59 percent supermajority (3,155,124 yes votes).
But at best, the battle was only half-won. The Legislature played a double game of pretending to comply with the new constitution in public while covertly evading the law. So when its 2011 gerrymander surfaced, the reformers understood at once they had been outfoxed.
The League of Women Voters and Common Cause went to court. The Legislature resisted every step of the way – rejecting access to its records, destroying documents, refusing to testify, its consultants stonewalling, until one hired hand, Marc Reichelderfer, confessed under oath and disclosed a labyrinth of emails, documents, meetings and, finally, electronic versions of pro-Republican electoral district maps finely tuned by sophisticated software.
It then took skillful electronic detective work to crack the code and prove to a Florida judge that maps produced by Reichelderfer & Co. were ultimately used by Florida lawmakers.
In July 2014, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis found the GOP Legislature guilty of an illegal gerrymander “tainted with unconstitutional intent.” He ordered the Legislature into special session to redraw the maps for two congressional districts. But Republican lawmakers, still defiant, only made a few tweaks. Totally dissatisfied, the Fair Districts coalition appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In July 2015 came the thunderbolt. As the Miami Herald reported, the Florida Supreme Court “took a wrecking ball to Florida’s political landscape.”
In a blistering 5-2 ruling, the high court condemned the Legislature’s “blatantly unconstitutional” gerrymander and ordered eight congressional districts redrawn as well as the maps for the entire state Senate. Within a month, the Florida Senate admitted publicly that it had broken the law with a partisan gerrymander.
In late 2015, two circuit judges lowered the boom. Judge Lewis fashioned a new map for congressional districts, relying heavily on maps provided by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters because the Legislature could not agree on a plan. The Lewis formula made 10 of Florida’s 27 districts more competitive.
Another circuit judge rejected the Legislature’s twice-revised plan for state Senate districts and adopted a rival plan from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. In the new political climate, state legislators began shifting their stance on Florida gun laws and other policies. One GOP congressional incumbent broke with the party and came out for a $15 minimum wage.
In the end, said attorney David King, who had argued the Fair Districts case in court, the gerrymander reform succeeded beyond expectations, achieving a major “victory for the people of Florida and for restoration of representative democracy.”
Hedrick Smith is former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org. Contact him at email@example.com.