Proposal would reshape districts

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published September 27, 2007

Does it make sense for Florida to have contorted congressional districts that wind through half a dozen counties?

Not to the government watchdog group Common Cause, which last year spent more than $3-million trying to revamp how Florida political districts are drawn but couldn't even get the matter on the ballot.

Now Common Cause is trying again, only much more cautiously.

A Common Cause-backed political committee called FairDistrictsFlorida.org has asked the Florida secretary of state to review two proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution, to be put on the ballot in 2010.

Leaders of the effort include chairwoman Ellen Freidin, a Democratic lawyer in Miami who served on the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission and Republican former Comptroller Bob Milligan and Democratic former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Unlike 2006, when advocates proposed creating a supposedly nonpartisan commission to draw districts, this time Common Cause is merely trying to mandate that lawmakers draw compact districts without trying to help or hurt any political party. Separate ballot questions would cover legislative districts and congressional districts.

Critics say gerrymandered districts are why incumbents so rarely lose re-election and make members of Congress and the Legislature less accountable to voters.

"Really what is lacking in the Constitution is the ability for anyone to challenge these redistricting plans that get passed," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida.

The Florida Supreme Court rejected the 2006 ballot proposal for a redistricting commission on technical grounds.

To get on the ballot in 2010, the group will need more than 600,000 signatures, which costs millions of dollars. "We're going to be going in incremental stages," said Wilcox, who has no commitment for major funding from Common Cause nationally. "We don't want to be under the same kind of gun that we were under the last time."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727 893-8241.

Proposed ballot summary: "Legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries."