TALLAHASSEE - It is possible to believe that on Nov. 2 Americans will elect a president with no doubt this time as to who really should have won. To that extent, democracy will be alive and well in the country that considers itself to be the world's foremost exponent of government of, by and for the people.
Alas, there is as much fiction to that as there is truth. Of the two branches of government at stake on Nov. 2, you will be electing only one, the executive. The other, the legislative, has largely been chosen for you, much as the mafia used to decide what neighborhood belonged to which family.
Some people, a fortunate few, will be voting as if their votes mattered for members of what the founders intended to be the "people's house." None happen to live where you do.
There will be honest races for the Senate, where a third of the seats are up and a fair number of those will be open. As Senate races are run statewide, it is hard to rig them. But of the 435 House seats at stake, no more than 35 will be in any kind of doubt. That leaves 400 which will be safe for the parties already holding them. What actual choice the voters have will be limited to the occasional party primary for an open seat. In Florida, there will be just one of those: Seven Republicans are competing for the District 14 seat that Rep. Porter Goss is giving up.
At the Associated Press forum for Florida editors last week, the state party chairpersons were asked whether they expected any competitive congressional races this fall. Carole Jean Jordan, the Republican chair, predicted only one: state Rep. Beverly Kilmer's challenge to Democratic incumbent Alan Boyd in District 2. Scott Maddox, the Democratic chair, disagreed.
"I don't think there is a competitive race," he said.
Twenty-five seats. Not one of them competitive?
Jordan's enthusiasm was refreshing but Maddox's view was more realistic. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Boyd's sprawling north Florida district, and while most of them are conservative, so is he. Boyd, a prominent "Blue Dog" who has voted against gun control and against raising the minimum wage, carried the district with two-thirds of the vote in 2002 even as George Bush was managing to take it with a narrow plurality, 49 percent to 48.
Speaking as chair of a major party whose registrants still outnumber the other by some 368,000 votes, which allegedly lost the last statewide presidential race by only 537 votes, and which won a U.S. Senate race that year by a margin of 193,139, Maddox was conceding 18 of Florida's congressional seats to the minority party that currently holds them. He added that "not many" seats in the state Legislature would be in play either, effectively conceding Republican control there also.
The problem in both respects, as Maddox acknowledged, is how the districts were drawn in 2002 - to concentrate Democrats in as few districts as possible so as to assure Republican control of the rest. Where veteran Democrat Sam Gibbons of Tampa had several close shaves before he retired, his successor, Jim Davis, has a constituency that's now nearly 2 to 1 Democratic. The Republicans padded it two years ago with more than 32,000 Pinellas voters - not for Davis' sake, but to insure that Rep. Bill Young's seat would remain Republican after he retires.
This is, of course, what Democrats used to do to Republicans in Florida before the demographics changed too much, and how they still do it to Republicans in California. Maddox admitted that too. Until something is done to reform the way Florida districts are drawn, he said, there will be "no chance" for Democrats to recapture either house of this Legislature.
"I can't think of a lot of things that are more important" than districting reform, he added.
But Maddox' party so far has yet to invest a dime in the redistricting initiatives that have revived under the leadership of state Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach. Maddox said there would be party money once Ryan's committee gets the 488,7220 signatures it needs to get each of the two initiatives on the November ballot, but without money to pay solicitors it's hard to imagine getting to that point.
Ryan's strategy, for now, is to secure just enough signatures with nonpartisan grass-roots support - Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other groups - to qualify for Supreme Court review. That takes nearly 50,000. Then, he thinks, money might be forthcoming. Assuming the presidential nomination is still in play March 9, there'll be volunteers at Florida's primary polls that day.
The petitions call for an independent redistricting commission and for standards of fairness in drawing the lines. Republicans used to support this and all thoughtful Republicans still should. The committee's site: www.fairrepresentation.com.)
The bottom line is not who gets to control the Legislature and the Congress, but who gets to decide. That someone ought to be the voter, not the politician. It's about restoring your right to cast a vote that counts.