What is representation?
The term has many meanings, depending upon the usage. Some forms of art are representational. One can make representations affirming one’s credentials or good intentions. One can deal with one or a few individuals who are acting on behalf of a particular group of others, or with individuals who are assumed, by virtue of commonalities with that group, to have needs and wants at least similar to group’s members more generally.
Our form of government (at all levels of our federal system and in nearly all places in this country) is sometimes referred to as a “representative democracy,” a phrase intended to distinguish our form of democracy from “direct” or “participatory” democracy. In “direct” democracies, we, the people, actually rule, actually making the policy decisions. In representative democracies, we select those who rule on our behalf.
In order for a representative democracy to be considered legitimate by the citizens who are governed by it, one suspects that “representative” has to be understood to mean something by the citizens, and that they have to believe they see it in the way the government works.
Which brings us to the historic bit of litigation currently under way in Leon County Circuit Court.
In 2010, Florida’s voters amended the Florida Constitution to require the decennial legislative redistricting process to respect natural and jurisdictional boundaries and to be drawn, not in the interest of a particular political party or particular officeholders/candidates, but in the interest of fair representation.
The case currently being litigated revolves around whether or not the Florida Legislature honored that new standard.
The “poster child” district for those who claim partisan and/or personal motives behind the 2012 maps is U.S. House District 5, which looks like this (area in white):
One has to question the kind of representation Jacksonville, Gainesville and Orlando residents get from such a district (not to mention all of the smaller towns and unincorporated communities along this serpent’s length). That’s not a personal criticism of the officeholder (Representative Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville), but an observation about the geography of the district. If Florida only had five districts, one district might have to contain all three of these cities. But we don’t have just three districts; we have 27. Surely a map could be drawn that would give each representative a more-or-less coherent set of communities to represent, each a part of a particular geographic region of the state!
But that’s only one notion of representation.
Representative Brown is an African-American woman. Her mere presence in Congress, according to the “like me” notion of representative, gives African-Americans representation there.
Representative Brown first was elected to Congress in 1992. She successfully secured election in a district which, at the time, had a substantial percentage of African-American voters, but not a majority. She has been in the U.S. House ever since.
Advocates for the maps point out that the number of African-Americans currently representing Florida in Congress and in the state legislature is closer to the proportion of the population that is African-American than it was before such districts were drawn. So the maps have produced a more “representative” delegation, meaning, here that the legislature (whichever legislature) looks more like the people of the state in terms of demographic traits like race.
But one also could argue that neither Florida’s U.S. House delegation nor either of its state legislatures looks like the Florida public in terms of its political traits. One reason: the creation of districts like District 5, where large numbers of Democrats are packed into the same district, diluting the influence of Democrats statewide.
Race remains a powerful force in American politics, including American electoral politics (though certainly less than it once was). If we want our legislatures to look like our citizens, we may need to be creative in creating minority-access districts, as Florida’s maps since 1992 have been.
On the other hand, if we want policies to reflect the policy preferences of Floridians, we may need to draw legislative district maps that don’t seek to segregate legislative districts by race and, conveniently, by partisan affiliation.