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Petitions could put fairness on vote maps

Published May 29, 2005

Arnold Schwarzenegger is right.

One of the main problems with American politics today is that not enough incumbents get kicked out of office.

Hardly anybody in Congress gets kicked out. As we see with our own Reps. Bill Young and Mike Bilirakis, it's a lifetime gig. Then you can try to pass it along to your kid, like a British hereditary title.

As for our Florida Legislature, exactly zero incumbents were defeated in the last election. Zero. That's not a real democracy.

How has this come about?

Two main reasons. The first is money. Soft money, hard money - the incumbent is always going to have more money.

But the second reason is rigged, unfair voting districts that give an unbeatable advantage to incumbents.

Voting districts in our state are drawn by the Florida Legislature itself. The people with the biggest conflict of interest are the ones drawing the map.

As a result, nearly every incumbent, Republican and Democrat alike, lives in a "safe" district where it is impossible for a challenger from the other party to win.

What can we do?

There is a campaign under way in Florida to do exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to do in California, and take the power of drawing the map away from the Legislature.

Florida now has a citizens' petition (actually, three petitions) for a constitutional amendment to create an independent, 15-member commission to draw our voting maps. Twelve would be named by the majority and minority parties in the Legislature. Three would be named by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

But nobody could stack the deck. It would take a supermajority of 10 votes to approve a map, a true consensus.

As for ethics: No member of the commission could be an officeholder, a paid lobbyist or a party officer. No member of the commission could run for office for four years after helping to draw the map.

That's the first petition.

The second petition sets out rules for how to draw districts. Districts would have to be as compact as possible. No splitting up of a community. No political considerations. No funny boundaries.

The third petition says that if this is passed in the 2006 election, then we'll draw new maps for the 2008 election. No sense waiting until the next decade.

(There are three separate petitions so the Supreme Court can't throw out the whole thing for dealing with more than one subject. Better safe than sorry.)

The group behind this effort is called the Committee for Fair Elections. It is an umbrella for a bunch of different outfits and causes. The League of Women Voters likes it. So does Common Cause.

The honorary chairmen include Bob Milligan, the respected former state comptroller and a Republican, and Betty Castor, a Democrat, the former state education commissioner, university president and U.S. Senate candidate.

If you have a computer, you can print out the petitions, sign them and send them in. The Web address is:

You can call or write to request a petition, too. The address is: Committee for Fair Elections, 704 West Madison St., Tallahassee, FL 32304-4324. The toll-free phone number is 1-800-771-4769.

In California, Schwarzenegger is a Republican fighting a legislative body run by Democrats. In Florida, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, our Legislature is run by Republicans. Yet in both cases, it is the right thing to do.

My Republican friends ask: Were you in favor of this back when the Democrats were in charge? Yes. Besides, my Republican friends tell me that they win elections not because of rigged districts, but because voters like their conservative message better. So they have nothing to fear.

Democrat, Republican, I don't care. What I do care about is fixing it so that Florida legislators can't vote to pollute the environment, abolish the state university system, gut insurance coverage, do favors for donors, double everybody's phone bill, and then come home and sail to automatic re-election - and then, worst of all, claim it's some kind of seal of approval.

[Last modified May 30, 2005, 09:56:23]

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