Redistricting: Lessons about Lines in the Sand

Redistricting: Lessons about Lines in the Sand

True confessions: My first reaction to the headline news that the Florida Legislature had failed to adopt a redrawn congressional district map was one of anger.

The Legislature had failed to do the one thing it had come into session to do: adopt a new map for the state’s congressional districts. One hundred sixty adults, elected to serve the people, couldn’t adopt a map to secure the public’s representation in Congress.


But I’ve calmed down a bit since then.

I don’t have any inside information; I only know what anyone else can know about this process from reading the news from a variety of sources. But this is what I see, and what I see as the fundamental problem.

A compromise was not available. Period. The way the game was played, one chamber was going to win, and one was going to lose. There weren’t any face-saving devices available, any clever political rhetoric that might at least have made the loss seem more like a tactical retreat or a win-some-lose-some result.

The way the game was played pitted the irresistible force in one chamber (the Senate) against the immovable object in the other (the House).

For the Senate, that irresistible force was the Senate’s budget chair (and other leaders supporting him), who proposed the map amendment that lies at the heart of the division between the two chambers. One simply does not buck the leadership (of either chamber) without taking serious risks. It’s in the nature of the way our state legislative chambers are organized and the power that is wielded by those at the top.

To say this is not to condemn or condone this reality. It merely is to state the obvious.

The amendment had as its central public purposes reducing the number of districts into which Hillsborough County was divided from four to three and placing all of Sarasota County in a single district. Both of these objectives arguably are consistent with the state constitution’s requirements. As a consequence, however, Lake and Orange counties fared less well in terms of how they were divided up, allowing one to argue that the map was inconsistent with the constitutional requirements with reasonable plausibility as well.

On the other side, the House had declared itself fixedly determined to adopt the staff-developed map with very little modification as the best way to avoid further litigation. The modifications made by the House to the “base map” generally involved small changes to reduce the number of cities that were split between congressional districts when that was not numerically necessary.

From the perspective of the House, the Senate-approved map, with more substantial changes in district lines, risked allegations of partisan or personal manipulation, precisely what had led to the need for a special session in the first place.

So even when the Senate offered some options (incorporating the House changes in South Florida, for example, as they did at the eleventh hour), the House was almost certain to say “no” (as they did).

The House may be right on this. Unsurprisingly, some have speculated about the political backstory on the Senate’s redrawing of the district lines. It could have gotten messy.

Or maybe not.

But the larger lesson is about drawing lines in the sand. We’ve seen it before; we’re seeing it clearly here.

Draw a small line in the sand somewhere on the beach, and one can negotiate around it, giving some beachfront someplace else in exchange for preserving the line. Compromise is possible. Both sides can give, because both sides can get.

Once a line is drawn across the length and breadth of the beach (or the state), there is only winning or losing left for the parties involved. And no political leader will lie down on the sand for that without being forced.

Which, I suppose, is what the courts will do this fall.

4 Responses to Redistricting: Lessons about Lines in the Sand

  • jimfrishe

    I make this same request of everyone who complains about the Legislative redistricting process.
    The software that is used is available on both chambers’ web site. If you want to complain about how they go about it and speculate on what the motives are then download the software and create your own map. Submit it to the Legislative body of your choice. Not even the St. Pete Times is willing to do this. I asked their bureau chief where his map was during the original process. He chose to criticize from the sidelines instead of pitching in and making constructive suggestions with a map.
    After you have done that you will find this: It is impossible to comply with the Constitution. There will always be something the courts could point to as not complying.
    After you have drawn your own map, then you can talk about how easy it would be to just compromise. But not until then.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      Thanks, Jim. In part, I agree with you. I also was arguing that compromise on the map is difficult, though much easier when the two parties each have ideas about changes they’d like to see and a willingness to trade off some changes for others. That willingness itself may be problematic in a post-Fair Districts Amendments era.

      Lambasting public officials because we heard a false rumor that we didn’t bother to question, or because they didn’t give us exactly what we wanted, isn’t good citizenship.

      In part, however, I think citizens have the right to criticize, thoughtfully, without doing all the homework their elected officials are supposed to do. That’s how representative democracy works. It is the job of our elected representatives both to do the homework and to give an account of their work to the citizens. Citizens don’t need to review every ‘work’ in detail, or attempt to come up with the right bill, to offer criticism, up to and including voting someone out of office.

  • Cindy Mulvey

    (This post has been edited for clarity) Citizens have the right to criticize, …. Why do we question our representatives’ intentions?
    Why is the citizen left with the idea that they are gerrymandering the district? In my state the left is complaining that they are gerrymandering the district to cater to the right.

    • Dr. Scott Paine

      I think, Cindy, that there is both a ‘politicized’ and a real and practical dimension to the debate in many states about redistricting. The ‘politicized’ part is the role that each party’s advocates and others play in trying to turn disagreements about how district lines are drawn to partisan advantage. In some ways, it’s no different (though the stakes are much higher) than the way a coach may harangue the referee or umpire about a call. Sometimes the coach absolutely believes that the call was wrong; at other times, the coach may simply be ‘gaming’ the official, knowing that the call was close, trying to get the official to be a little more sensitive to the coach’s team on the next close call. Partisan activists and others do the same thing, only it’s the public that is the ‘official’, and they’re just trying to get a little advantage in the next election cycle.

      The real and practical dimension is that the drawing of district lines can and does profoundly affect the distribution of political power between the parties and even among individual candidates and potential candidates. Citizens should be concerned when those lines are drawn ‘unreasonably’ or ‘unfairly’ (both difficult terms to define), because this isn’t just about which party or which candidate has power; it’s about the degree to which we, the people, actually have an influence on the process of legislation. So we should be attentive . . . not cynical, but not naive either, when the work of redistricting is done.