Rob Richie: How Florida can hold elections in fair districts in 2014
Published: Friday, August 15, 2014 at 4:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 at 4:33 p.m.
Florida voters deserve to elect their congressional representatives in districts that are consistent with the state constitution. One man can ensure that happens: Florida Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis
Last month, after an extensive trial with embarrassing revelations about the politicized nature of Florida’s congressional redistricting, Judge Lewis ruled that the congressional plan violated the Fair Districts provisions added to the state constitution by voters in 2010. State legislators passed a new map with modest changes to seven districts, which Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign into law.
Judge Lewis now must make two key decisions. First, he has to determine whether the redrawn maps satisfy the Fair Districts criteria. The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause claim they don’t. While the new plan has its defenders, there’s no doubt that it looks gerrymandered, maintain a strong Republican advantage, and keeps most districts so imbalanced that the average race was won by a two-to-one margin in 2012.
He must also decide whether Florida should keeping using its unconstitutional plan this November. Although legislative leaders maintain that elections in the new districts are infeasible, Judge Lewis has viable options to ensure elections occur in districts consistent with the state constitution, with minimal disruption for voters and election officials.
Using Louisiana election system in redrawn districts: If Judge Lewis determines that the legislature’s plan has remedied the constitutional violation or offers his own district plan, then he should cancel the primary in the affected districts, re-open candidate filing, and implement Louisiana’s congressional election system.
In Louisiana, all candidates contest the November general election. There is a runoff between the top two candidates if no candidate secures an absolute majority of votes. Overseas voters are protected in the runoff because they have already returned ballots on which they rank candidates in order of preference, with their ballot counting for whichever runoff candidate is ranked highest.
Judge Lewis can order this remedy because it only affects state law. There also is precedent for this change on exactly the same timetable. In August 1996, a federal court redrew 13 congressional district boundaries in Texas, vacated the results of primaries and ordered new elections with Louisiana’s system. Of the 13 districts, ten were won outright in November, and three went to runoffs, including one between two Republicans in a heavily Republican district.
Fair representation voting in a multi-seat district: Judge Lewis may determine that the legislature’s new plan still violates the state constitution. His simplest approach would be to order special election rules where the five most directly affected districts would be combined into a single district and voters would use the open ticket method to elect five members in November.
The voters’ job is easy: casting a single vote. This vote counts for the candidate and that candidate’s party. Seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the share of the vote won by all its candidates, and a party’s seats go to its candidates who have won the most votes – essentially combining the primary and general election. In a five-seat district, a candidate would always win if securing just over one-sixth of the vote. Similar systems are used in several American localities, including Florida’s Lake Park, and federal courts have upheld them as viable remedies to minority vote dilution.
The open ticket system is simple to administer. Although a multi-seat district would be in tension with a 1967 federal law mandating single member districts, there is a 2008 precedent for unilateral state action to resolve a crisis involving congressional elections.
Done statewide, such fair representation systems provide the best assurance of outcomes that fairly reflect the state’s diversity and partisan balance, and put every voter in competitive elections . A statewide remedy is likely beyond Judge Lewis’ powers, but the latest controversy shows how ultimately the best way to resolve the redistricting wars is to put voters in charge of their own representation.
Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote (www.fairvote.org), a national electoral reform group based in Maryland.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.