OPINION: Florida legislators can’t be trusted with honest redistricting

After legislators in Florida were caught illegally tilting the 2010 redistricting process in Republicans’ favor, this year’s process can’t be anything less than openly transparent and recorded for all constituents to see. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Florida legislators are currently in the process of redrawing state legislative and congressional districts. These GOP legislators are under particular scrutiny this year after the Florida Supreme Court concluded the last process was illegally hijacked by Republican political operatives 10 years ago.

Despite this, GOP leaders have held no public hearings, won’t give interviews and haven’t responded to requests from voters’ groups that they conduct a transparent process uninfluenced by clandestine political forces.

Legislators need to conduct a transparent redistricting process and involve constituents to prevent gerrymandering and the unfair tampering that has occurred in the past. Hillsborough County’s impending redistricting will be paired with workshops for residents to give their input, which should be taken full advantage of. 

“Ruskin, Apollo Beach and Riverview are all part of District 1… and those are two totally different worlds,” said Hillsborough resident Nicole Licor in a July 22 interview with Bay News 9. 

“Communities in rural areas versus downtown Tampa have different needs. Ruskin used to be all in one district and then they split us. I’m not a fan of that.”

Gerrymandering — the illegal manipulation of district boundaries to benefit one party — has been a problem for Florida before.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the congressional district maps drawn in 2010 were the product of unconstitutional political gerrymandering and a shadow map-drawing scheme by the GOP, wherein they secretly fed redistricting plans to a Republican consultant to ensure they had strong chances at reelection. An entirely new map had to be drawn for the upcoming 2016 election.

As such, there is a great deal of skepticism for the honesty of our legislators. A group of nonpartisan advocates called the Fair Districts Coalition fought and won voter approval for the Fair Districts amendments in 2010. These require legislators to draw maps that don’t favor incumbents or political parties. Earlier this year, the group asked all 160 legislators to sign a pledge to keep the redistricting process transparent, but only 19 representatives, all Democrats, signed.

In a letter to legislators, the coalition asked them to pledge to support transparency. This included streaming map-drawing online in real time so the public can watch the process — as a court ordered North Carolina legislators to do in 2019 — creating opportunities for the public to provide input before maps are drawn and allowing public comment on draft maps after they are presented.

The coalition also asked that all records including draft maps be retained and members be instructed to “not destroy any documents that relate to redistricting.” This is in response to 2012, when the Supreme Court ordered the Florida Legislature to release all its redistricting documents, only to find the Legislature had destroyed it all but for a handful of draft maps.

”I think they’re being told not to talk to anybody because basically, what the leaders are saying to the members is, ‘Anything you say can be used in a court of law,’” said Coalition President Ellen Freidin in a Sept. 15 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. 

“But if they were following the law, there’s not going to be any use for it. In other words, if they say things that are consistent with the Fair Districts amendments, then how could that be used against them?”

Our legislators have proven they cannot be trusted to conduct a fair and legal redistricting of the state. 

Hillsborough County’s public workshops will be an excellent opportunity for citizens to get involved in the redistricting process as well as band together with the Fair Districts Coalition. The first meeting open to public input is Sept. 29 at 9 a.m. with two others in early November. The county offers census maps and its redistricting plan on its website for those interested in being informed on their district. 

Time and time again state and congressional legislators have cheated the system and disappointed their constituents, and it should not be allowed to continue. We should insist that the statewide redistricting process conducts similar workshops. We should insist that our legislators are held accountable.