News: Pieces of Pie

CJ Ortuno, Save Miami-Dade

The Miami Redistricting Hearings Analyzed

By Anne Newport Royall

As they stood, one by one, 30 or so Florida legislators rattled off the individual long list of communities they represent with increasing length and breadth highlighting the diverse, wide and crooked districts that make up the most gerrymandered state in the nation, Florida. The reason for the meeting of the Special Joint Subcommittee of the Florida Senate Committee on Reapportionment and the House Redistricting Committee became clear: is this a mess that can be cleaned up? Is there a simple district map in Florida’s future?

No one knows for sure, because no map was presented by the legislators charged with producing it, one that will pass a judicial pre-test, then a legislative vote and a governor’s signature before the next election cycle. “It’s a chicken-and-egg process” Representative Will Weathford, chair on the House side offered. “We would have been criticized either way. We choose to listen to you first, and get a feel for what it all means.”

With 16 rolling town-hall meetings under their belt, the select elected came close to SoBe with a stop across the MacArthur Causeway downtown at the Wolfson Campus of Miami-Dade College on Wednesday August 17, 2011 to face a crowd of over 150, including political attorney J.C. Planas, career county employee Supervisor of Elections Lester Sola and his deputy Christina White, Dr, Sean Foreman of Barry University, dozens of local elected officials and several Miami Beach residents who spoke at the meeting and highlighting the major concerns of the day.

C.J. Ortuno, Executive Director of Save DADE spoke on the “great Florida mosaic” that includes the gay, lesbian, bi- and transgender oriented, and advocated that a district should be set aside for them as “No one ever” from the openly LGBT community has been elected to the state house, senate or cabinet, and that they, like other individuals that proudly spoke for the local Haitian, Mexican, Latino, African American and even white native-borns, all met the test of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Specifics of the act require that numbers alone do not dictate the drawing of lines, but that districts be drawn to carve out populations of minorities to ensure  the 1960s definition of “equal representation.”

Since race my not be the predominant factor in drawing the lines, there are other “tests” groups apply when vying for special treatment outside the population box. These include geographically compact minority populations,  that are politically cohesive and vote as a bloc. Many who spoke used this as grounds for preserving or expanding a piece of the electoral  pie.

Larry Thorson gave a little linguistics lesson with his “Fair Districts is our Aim” speech, which focused on the word “fair”, of which there is no German or Japanese equivalent. This was important because the term is an American concept. But ‘fair’ what? “Our map is not fair, and has not been fair for a long time, and gerrymandering for political gain makes us distrustful of you politicians. In the end, we will see how fair this process really is.”

Greg Carney, President of the Venetian Island Homeowners Association, echoed the voices of many when saying that “compact contiguous districts make for better representation. You know who we are, we know who you are, and you’ll meet our needs even if our skin color or first language doesn’t match.” He hoped the assembled would focus on making congressional districts tighter: “Our County is big enough and diverse enough to have three or four congressional districts that stay within only Miami-Dade County.”

Evan Ross broke the rules by posing a question, then expecting an answer from the lawmakers. “If there is time at the end, we will answer your questions and correct the facts for the record, but we are here to listen to you,” proclaimed Senator Don Gaetz, ranking member and chair of the joint committee. “All I want is a show of hands,” Ross pleaded as he asked questions related to the lawsuit filed by local Representative Mario Diaz-Balart that was joined by and financed by the Florida House to strike down Amendment 6, an anti-gerrymandering measure passed by over 60% of the voters last year. “Who thinks it is a bad idea to use taxpayer money to sue in order to change the will of the people?” he asked?  Only a few lawmakers raised their hands, after Mr. Ross was told even that would not happen. Those who did raise their hands were met with applause. Several others spoke of the sanctity of the Florida Constitution with a “love it or leave it” sentiment that did not include a lawsuit.

Mayor Mike Pizzi of Miami Lakes, and Oliver Gilbert, Councilman from Miami Gardens, spoke about the difficulty of having different representatives in their “Mayberry-like small towns,” especially in the case of Miami Lakes. “I am here to plead for sense and to have the maps drawn with the full application of the law. This is not rocket science.”

“When you carve up municipalities you marginalize the voice of the people. One neighborhood may have to visit two or three different representatives” when trying to get something done.

This redrawing of political districts is a painful and historic decennial process dictated by the constitution to support the basic principle of our representational democracy—the 14th Amendment—interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to mean “one person, one vote”. In theory that requires each voting district, Congressional, State House and State Senate as well as municipalities electing leaders by district and not at-large like in Miami-Dade County, be substantially equal in population. According to the Founding Fathers, every ten years a count is taken, then, based on that count (the last one was in April 2010), the landscape is re-divided to populate each district as evenly as possible. This helps keep our representational form of democracy pure and true.

Because Florida’s population is so densely centered in major population zones, and in those zones often lay pockets of segregated communities, the perfect futuristic scenario arises for anyone wanting to give cartography a try. A positive part of this process is the very cool online tool My District Builder, which enables the user to suggest a map from a single Senate district to the House-seating chart in its entirety. Several maps suggested by groups and citizens were on display at the meeting, with a dozen more available online. It also allows a person to draw or redraw a map of, say, their own congressional district, and guides the redistricting based on population demographics. The Committee will be looking at these submitted maps, and considering the possible permutations when presenting suggestions to the Legislature in mid-January.

Until then, the political jockeying will continue through next year and wreak havoc on those seeking higher office and on those charged with administering the process.

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