It is often said that if elections are when voters choose their politicians, then redistricting is when politicians choose their voters.
In few places has the cheeky adage rang as true as it has in the state of Florida, where in 2015 the state Supreme Court was forced to strike down our congressional and state senate maps for being blatantly unconstitutional per the Fair Districts Amendments voters passed overwhelmingly in 2010.
That decision and its immediate consequences became one of my first formative experiences as a young citizen, when my home congressional district, Florida’s 7th, was redrawn to keep our county whole and include our minority communities. In the next election in 2016, a woman of color won our district for the first time ever, against a twelve-term white male incumbent who won by 31 points just two years earlier.
That 2016 congressional election taught me, then a curious 14-year-old who was just becoming conscious of the civic community around me, how democracy doesn’t just depend on how individuals vote — it depends on how whole communities of people are represented.
This time around, the legislature has vowed to correct the mistakes of the last redistricting cycle, but I’m skeptical, and you should be too.
Two UF professors, Dr. Michael McDonald and Dr. Dan Smith, reviewed the legislature’s contracts with Florida State University to gather election data. They found that the state is not making their data public on the state’s redistricting website, and lawmakers have actually exempted this information from public records requests via legislative privilege.
You might have heard about that if you’ve been following redistricting news closely, but I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t been. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know redistricting was happening at all, and the legislature benefits from this.
Redistricting isn’t glamorous. It’s abstract, it’s tedious and voters don’t necessarily have as clear a role in it as they may in other issues. The legislature knows this, and they haven’t exactly gone out of their way to change those facts.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended meetings of both the House Redistricting and Senate Reapportionment committees on behalf of Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project as one of Florida’s Redistricting Fellows. Neither committee made it clear how much access citizens actually have to the process.
While there is a state redistricting portal, it’s unclear where submissions or comments to that portal even go. When a member in one chamber suggested having public meetings with their constituents on redistricting, the committee leadership shot down the idea.
And those meetings I attended — which by nature are in Tallahassee, a city hundreds of miles from where most Floridians live — haven’t been the most accessible events either. Often meetings are posted just days before they happen, and aren’t widely publicized or even particularly easy to find.
When I travelled the 150 miles one Wednesday morning (I had to miss an entire day of class and work — a sacrifice most Floridians can’t afford to make at a moment’s notice) for a House meeting, I was nearly a no-show. The committee page and meeting notice mentioned two different rooms, in a Capitol Complex that was partially under construction. Had I not run into the chamber’s chaplain who directed me through the winding halls of the Knott Building, I likely wouldn’t have made the meeting on time at all.
Getting lost in the capitol, having to make an inconvenient drive or using a clunky government website may not sound nearly as insidious as the shady dealings Dr. McDonald and Dr. Smith uncovered recently, but their impact on Floridians like you and me is just as real. Making the redistricting process as inaccessible as possible frees them from having to face public pressure to keep their promises.
The Florida Legislature has told us they’ll be transparent, but transparency requires accessibility. Floridians shouldn’t have to take on excessive burdens to participate in the process. For a truly fair and accountable process, the legislature must make redistricting accessible to all.
Andrew Taramykin is a UF political science and economics sophomore and a redistricting fellow with Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project.