Voters should pick their elected leaders, not the other way around. But when drawing boundaries for political offices, politicians often use the power of the pen to loop in communities they expect will support them — or make it harder for rivals to get elected.
The opportunity to redraw political districts — a process called redistricting — comes around every 10 years after the census. Not long ago, state lawmakers drew these lines for state and congressional offices. Perhaps you remember that after a long, bitter battle, the courts said the maps violated the 2010 Fair Districts amendments, which prohibit politicians from drawing lines that favor incumbents or political parties. Begrudgingly, state lawmakers were forced to re-do their best laid plans.
Now comes the question of how to draw the political map for the Broward County Commission.
For as it happens, the Broward County Charter Review Commission, also convened every 10 years, is working full throttle on possible changes to the governance structure of this growing county. Any amendments it proposes will go before voters next November.
We’ve already encouraged the commission to propose the creation of an elected county mayor, someone elected countywide to be a leader for all of Broward. The state’s second-largest county needs a bigger voice on the public stage, a recognizable leader who’s clearly in charge.
As things stands, the mayor’s gavel is rotated among the nine county commissioners, which means voters don’t get to elect their mayor. Plus, the position is largely ceremonial, which means it’s more about cutting ribbons than about setting a vision and solving problems.
Today, we’d also like to encourage the commission to change how the map gets drawn for county commission seats, to learn from those who led the drive for the Fair Districts amendments and to ensure districts are more balanced and compact.
Looking at today’s map for Broward’s county commission seats feels like taking a Rohrschach test. In it, you can see what looks like an EKG readout, an adjustable wrench, a jumping dog, the Texas panhandle and all the hallmark twists and turns of gerrymandering.
Yes, city boundaries cause some of the jumble. And a district drawn to ensure minority representation explains some of the squiggle. But packing too many minority neighborhoods into just one district also limits the chances of electing more minorities from others.
The question is, how do you remove politics from the process of drawing a political map?
Do you have commissioners draw the lines themselves and simply hold them accountable? Or do you appoint an independent panel to draw the map? If so, who appoints that panel? The commissioners? All you have to do is look at the charter review board to see the sway commissioners can hold over their appointees.
The people who led the drive for the Fair Districts amendments say it’s impossible to create a completely independent process. Their advice is to let elected officials draw the lines in a transparent setting after setting standards for them to follow. Then, anyone who opposes the outcome can ask the courts to determine whether the standards were met.
After considering the alternatives, we support the Fair Districts approach, with the addition of a safeguard to avoid costly legal fights.
First, we encourage Broward’s charter review commission to recommend standards that:
- forbid the creation of districts intended to favor, or hurt, a political party or incumbent.
- keep districts as compact and contiguous as possible, using natural geographic boundaries (such as roads and waterways) and existing political boundaries (such as city limits.)
- divvy up the population as evenly as possible among commission districts.
- ensure the opportunity for minority groups to elect representatives of their choice.
To get there, the county needs a process that:
- requires county commissioners to team with a university to create proposed maps that are guided by demographic changes and citizen input via a series of public meetings.
- creates a panel of county judges to review the proposed map to ensure it meets the standards. If not, the judges would order a re-do.
- requires the map to pass judicial review before adoption. That way, citizens wouldn’t have to file costly lawsuits if they see something amiss, though they still could if they believe the judicial panel missed something.
Total transparency is the best way to keep political agendas from co-opting the map-making process, says Ellen Freidin, who led the drive for the Fair Districts amendments.
“It really requires doing everything in public,” she told the review board members. “If they do it in public, the public can do something about it.”
That means a series of meetings to field suggestions from the public, posting draft maps online as soon as they are available and allowing amendments from commissioners only at public meetings. The judicial review should also occur in public.
More than anything, redistricting offers the best opportunity to improve our nation’s politics. For if politicians were elected from districts that reflect the diversity of opinions in a community — including the broad middle, where most of us often find ourselves — they might be more willing to solve problems and get things done.
To get there, demographics and democracy should drive redistricting, not politics.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid, Deborah Ramirez and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.