St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

The map for democracy in Florida won't be drawn by incumbents

With the Legislature continuing to draw the maps, few incumbents ever face a real challenge.

Published March 25, 2006

Tallahassee 1, People 0.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court struck from this fall's ballot a proposal for a new way of drawing our state's voting districts.

Hundreds of thousands of voters across Florida had signed petitions to get the idea on the ballot. The idea was to have an appointed board - not the Legislature - draw the district maps.

But the Supreme Court ruled that there were flaws in the way the proposal was written. It looks like a pretty sound ruling, too. Dang it.

The winners, therefore, are the incumbents of both major political parties in the Legislature and Congress. With the Legislature continuing to draw the maps, few incumbents ever face a real challenge.

Here is the proof of the pudding: There are 40 members of the Florida Senate and 120 members of the Florida House. Not one of them was defeated in the last election. Zero.

Sure, there's turnover in the Legislature, but only when incumbents choose to retire or run for higher office, or when they are forced out by term limits.

Even term limits offend the Legislature. That's why the Legislature is putting on this fall's ballot an increase in its own term limit, from eight years to 12 years.

Fair districts? No vote permitted.

Longer terms for incumbents? Sure, we're allowed to vote on that. Grr.

Here's why this is so important. When politicians cannot be defeated, then their decisions can be made without regard to public opinion or even public interest.

That's the answer to the age-old question: "How in the heck can they get away with THAT?"

It's also why more and more frustrated citizens are using petitions in Florida to bypass the Legislature.

If you are a Florida Republican, then your party is telling you: We were the big winners in this case. We hold more seats than the Democrats do. We had the most to lose. This whole thing was a Democratic scheme to steal seats from us.

But here is what this case really means for Republicans: We don't have to defend ourselves in an open fight. We can just carve up the state into "safe" seats for us, and cram the Democrats into a few districts that will remain "safe" for them.

The Democrats were just as selfish, just as shortsighted, just as greedy back when they had the most votes in the Legislature. They, too, refused to consider independent map-drawing when they had the chance.

It's bad for Florida. It's bad for America. The lack of competitive elections promotes partisanship over cooperation. It promotes extremism over moderation. It promotes the power of private interest and weakens the importance of public opinion.

Here are the possibilities now:

(1) Voters in favor of independent districting will try again, coming up with a new petition or petitions that will pass Supreme Court muster.

(2) Frustrated voters will resort more than ever to petition drives on individual policy issues, trying to force the Legislature to obey public opinion.

(3) The Legislature, emboldened by this victory, will crack down on citizen petitions even more. There are several attempts under way already.

Sometimes I wonder whether it might be better, in the long term, to let the Legislature shut down citizen petitions altogether. Call it the "tea kettle" theory. Maybethat's the only way for enough frustration to build to blow the whistle.

Some members of the Legislature claim that this was a victory for "the people." They say that they ARE "the people" when they draw voting districts. What could be more democratic?

Well, what would be more democratic would be for the incumbents drawing those maps to have a re-election rate of less than 100 percent.

When I was growing up, we had to take a subject in school called "Americanism vs. Communism." We were taught that the virtue of our system was that we had fair elections and could - and did - remove our politicians.

What does it say about us that it is no longer true?

[Last modified March 25, 2006, 20:02:02]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters