April 21, 2014

UTU Fla. SLD in thick of fight to end gerrymandering

In Florida last week, the people prevailed as a federal district court ruled Florida voters have every right to restrict the state legislature’s ability to redraw the election map willy-nilly to favor incumbent members of Congress and the state legislature.

UTU Florida State Legislative Director Andres Trujillo and his state legislative board were in the thick of the battle, fighting for “fair election districts” that ensure voters decide their politicians rather than politicians deciding their voters.

Two incumbent Florida politicians unsuccessfully argued before the federal court that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures “complete discretion” in drawing the boundaries of election districts. The federal court ruled otherwise, saying Florida voters can bind their own state legislature through amendments to the state constitution, as they did at the ballot box in 2010.

Redrawing election districts to accommodate changes in population occurs in every state every 10 years following completion of the U.S. Census.

Frequently, the majority party in the legislature attempts to establish a political advantage for their party by manipulating the geographic boundaries of congressional and state legislature voting districts. The term is known as “gerrymandering” after 19th century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who led an effort that so contorted congressional election districts in that state that one was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.

Gerrymandering “encourages the politics of division and extremism, and allows for the underrepresentation of Florida citizens’ interests, in legal, civil, legislative and government matters,” Trujillo said. The NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union agree, saying the state constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering in Florida strengthens protections for minorities.

Trujillo, with assistance from his state legislative board, arranged for the ballot initiative’s spokespersons to appear before public forums and newspaper editorial boards, solicited contributions to help fund state-wide advertising explaining the ballot initiative to voters, and helped organize petition drives to place the initiative before voters last year. On Election Day, the UTU Florida State Legislative Board helped to get out the vote. 

The federal court upheld the successful ballot-box initiative, meaning the Florida legislature is now prohibited from drawing voting-district lines to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party. The legislature must, instead, use existing political and geographical boundaries such as city or county limits, and geographical features like canals, bays and oceans. The federal court said voters approved a valid regulation of the legislative process.

Trujillo noted that the ballot initiative began in response to 430 separate elections for the legislature where only three incumbents were defeated. This was seen as evidence of the effect of past Florida gerrymandering to protect reelection of incumbents.