Gerrymandering comes home to Southwest Florida

The GOPigator 6-28-19 001

The Republigator, a Florida salute to Elkanah Tisdale and his original Gerrymander, showing the attempted devouring of Democratic congressional districts.   (Illustration by the author © 2019.)

July 1, 2019 by David Silverberg

Back in 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a contorted legislative map that favored his Democratic-Republican party, artist Elkanah Tisdale drew a cartoonish map that showed the new districts creating a lizard-like shape.

Unveiled at a dinner party, one guest compared it to a salamander. No, said another guest, “a Gerry-mander.” Published in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812, the cartoon gave rise to the term “gerrymander,” which today survives to describe politically-motivated boundary drawing designed to produce a desired electoral result.

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit
The original cartoon giving rise to the term “Gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering has been practiced in America since before creation of the country—colonial political boundaries were similarly inspired. It will clearly be with us for a lot longer because on June 27 the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the practice by ruling 5 to 4 in the case of Rucho vs. Common Cause, that the federal courts do not have a role in preventing extreme partisan gerrymandering.

For Democrats and everyone who fears that Republican-dominated legislatures will impose their will into perpetuity, it was a deep blow.

“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases [North Carolina and Maryland] deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the minority in an impassioned dissent. “In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.”

Ironically, Kagan cited Florida as a state whose courts intervened in an extreme gerrymander and ordered it changed. The Florida Constitution has a provision called the Fair Districts Amendment stating that no districting plan “shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party.”

In 2012 the state’s districting map was challenged because Republican legislature had packed African-American voters into a 5th Congressional District that looked like a Burmese python slithering up the peninsula’s spine. It took six years of litigation to change that district’s boundaries but the Florida Supreme Court finally forced adoption of a new map.

Despite Florida’s constitutional commitment to fair districts, the state is nonetheless politically gerrymandered and nothing proves it like Southwest Florida’s two congressional districts encompassing most of Lee and Collier counties.

Southwest Florida: The 19th Congressional District

Florida_US_Congressional_District_19_(since_2013)

The 19th Congressional District runs along the Gulf coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Goodland is its southernmost community. It includes Pine Island and Sanibel.

Ordinarily, including coastal and island communities would make sense; after all, it’s where much of the population lives. But what’s peculiar is the 19th’s eastern boundary: In Lee County it includes a sliver of Lehigh Acres then follows Rt. 75 southward for a while before suddenly cutting inland and making Livingston Rd. in Collier County its boundary.

Why these jigs and jags? Because whoever drew this line did it to limit the inclusion of potentially Democratic and Hispanic communities like Lehigh Acres, Golden Gate Estates and Immokalee.

The result is a District that is 83.5 percent white and older (27.7 percent over 65), according to Democratic Party statistics—and reliably and overwhelmingly Republican.

Southwest and South Florida: The 25th District

Florida 25 CD 6-30-19The 25th Congressional District is an enormous, ungainly area that stretches from the western Miami suburbs, chiefly Hialeah, and encompasses large swaths of the Everglades and sparsely populated wilderness until it reaches Collier and Lee counties—where it absorbs Golden Gate and Immokalee. (Lehigh Acres is mainly in the 17th Congressional District, another Republican district.)

The population of the 25th is 44 percent Cuban-American, the most of any congressional district in the United States and the district lines are drawn to absorb any non-Cuban Hispanic voters into the Republican Party. Clearly, the Republican hope is that all Hispanic voters will reflexively vote for a Hispanic name. Accordingly, the District’s representative is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who has been in Congress since 2003, outliving three redistrictings.

The Collier and Lee portions of the 25th are merely the tail on the 25th’s dog but they do ensure that potential Democrats there don’t vote in District 19 elections.

Surgical gerrymandering and the future

The district lines of the 19th and 25th and, to the north 17th, have been surgically gerrymandered to divide or dilute the votes of any potential Democratic communities (chiefly Lehigh Acres in Lee County and Golden Gate in Collier County). In the 19th District there is even a point at Potomac Place where the district line is so exact that it slices through a cul-de-sac in what appears to be an effort to avoid or include individual homes.

The 19th District’s lines in particular appear drawn to deliberately create a racially, ethnically and politically homogeneous white Republican district.

In fact, the 19th District may be in violation of both Supreme Court rulings against racially-based districting and Florida’s constitutional prohibitions against extreme partisan gerrymandering. A lawsuit brought against the lines of this district would have an excellent chance of succeeding— although at this late date, on the eve of a new census and new maps, such a lawsuit is unlikely.

Are there alternatives? Of course there are! It was the advent of computing that allowed gerrymanderers to precisely draw their lines based on racial and partisan data. But computing also provides potential computer-drawn maps that are neutral and equitable. Sadly, no legislature drawing the lines wants to give up its power to choose its voters, so these computer-generated maps remain conceptions only.

Florida is certainly no different from anywhere else and may be worse in some respects. But the only way to change the maps after the next census (which will presumably occur as scheduled despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to delay it) is to win the legislature and ensure that the maps are fair and equitable. If they’re not, they need to be challenged both in state court on the basis of the Fair Districts Amendment and in federal court on the basis of racial bias.

“As voters, we’re told that our elections are safe from meddling and that we have free and fair elections, yet today, the Supreme Court turned its back on good government with its non-decision on gerrymandering,” said Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party following the Supreme Court’s decision. “Now it’s up to us, the voters, to fix this problem. It starts with working hard to elect responsible, fair-minded legislators willing to put the public good over partisan politics.”

She continued: “This is another reason why the 2020 election is so important–we will not only be electing a president, but a state Legislature that will control how Florida votes for the decade to come.”

In her Supreme Court dissent, Justice Kagan asked: Can voters break out of the partisan boxes that gerrymandering creates?

“Sure,” she answered. “But everything possible has been done to make that hard. To create a world in which power does not flow from the people because they do not choose their governors. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

 


For further reading:

There’s a lot of material out there regarding gerrymandering.

The single greatest resource on the current state of gerrymandering is FiveThirtyEight.com’s Gerrymandering Project and its Atlas of Redistricting. An interactive map that provides an array of alternatives to current lines, the reader can redistrict according to a variety of criteria. You can go straight to Florida’s map and check out the state’s possible districts. Imagine a 19th Congressional District that includes Key West—or Clewiston! It’s in there.

Former President Barack Obama recorded a short video about redistricting that’s posted on YouTube.com. It’s refreshing to hear a president speak in complete sentences again.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is attempting to prepare for the 2021 redistricting process and is encouraging activism and participation.

Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections, is a book published in 2001 that exposed racial and partisan gerrymandering and some of the absurd results. It’s a bit dated now but still informative. There have been many other books on the process since then.  For example, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy tells the story of the Republican post-2008 effort to use gerrymandering to ensure Republican rule.

For some detailed history of gerrymandering, an excellent article is the Smithsonian’s Where Did the Term “Gerrymander” Come From?

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s