Martin Dyckman: Republicans are winning the gerrymander game in Florida

Amidst the Memorial Day barbecues, shopping sprees, sporting events and endless miles of “are we there yet?” there were speeches and commentaries to remind us of the fallen and the freedoms they died to protect.

Typically, these tributes mentioned the rights specified in the Constitution: religion, speech, assembly and press. U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross wrote in a Context Florida column of the “freedom to get involved in government.”

It struck me that he didn’t specify the right to vote. But it seems that few speakers ever do.  If you’re crafting remarks based on the Bill of Rights, voting is nowhere to be found.

Of all the rights we take for granted, voting is the most endangered.

The architects of the United States left it to the states to say who could vote and when.

Subsequent amendments established certain grounds on which it could not be denied, but the states still control whether voting will be convenient or difficult.

The 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act apply, but it can be time-consuming and expensive to invoke them.

As we have been seeing, Republican governors like Rick Scott and ALEC-infested legislatures like Florida’s are ingenious at making it difficult and inconvenient to vote.

And there are those who would make it even harder.

Another Florida congressman, Ted Yoho, said during his 2012 campaign that only property owners should be allowed to vote.

Elsewhere on the radical right–and not just among the Tea Party–there’s a growing fervor to repeal the 17th Amendment and have legislatures rather than the people choose U.S. senators again. Ted Cruz and Antonin Scalia, among others, are identified with this.

Call that nutty if you like, but those people are quite serious about it. Cruz wants to be president. Scalia sits on the Supreme Court.

Obvious obstacles to the ballot box such as voter ID, limited polling places and restricted voting hours aren’t the only devices for subverting your right to vote.

The other way is to waste your vote by gerrymandering it into irrelevance.

The current court challenge to the congressional district map that Florida Republicans contrived offers a glaring example.

A recent Washington Post article singled out Florida’s 5th district–a major issue in the lawsuit at Tallahassee–as one of the most gerrymandered in the nation. It looks, ironically, somewhat like the salamander shape that was identified with Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s 1811 Massachusetts outcome-rigging scheme–the original “Gerrymander.”

That one favored Democrats. Currently, according to the Post article, the Democrats are short 18 House seats nationally thanks to Republican gerrymanders like Florida’s.

The point, author Christopher Ingraham wrote, “isn’t to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it’s to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably.”

Ideally, every election ought to be a close one. But out of 27 congressional races in Florida in 2012, only two were close and only three more were truly competitive.   Six were entirely uncontested by one or the other of the major parties.

Among those in which votes were cast, according to the public interest group, 1.7-million Democratic votes were “wasted”–that is, cast in landslides like Corinne Brown’s; she won District 5 with 70 percent, with 99,772 more votes than her Republican cannon-fodder rival. Statewide, nearly 52 percent of Democratic votes were wasted. Only 20 percent of Republican votes were. The Republicans who drew the maps made sure their votes count.

Tom Slade, who chaired the Florida Republican Party when it amplified its control of the Legislature, explained to me how it was done:

“The Republicans wanted more predominantly white districts and the African Americans wanted more predominantly black districts. Every time you created an African American district, you created two Republican districts. Pretty soon white Democratic members of the Legislature got to be pretty scarce. All I did was ride the wave that had been created by serving the selfish interests of the Republicans and African Americans.”

Applied to Congress, the price of a district that’s safe for Corinne Brown was to create one safe for a Ted Yoho.

The “Fair Districts” initiatives that voters approved in 2010 were designed to overcome gerrymandering.

Speaking of selfish, it will be recalled that Congresswoman Brown worked with Republicans against their passage and sued unsuccessfully to overturn them.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.


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