With the discussion of redistricting and the drawing of district lines back front and center it is a good time to reflect on how the process of politics has gradually undermined proper representation in the state of Florida over the course of the last few decades. What has happened at the State House level is we have gone gradually from diverse multi-member districts to 80% of the seats being noncompetitive for one party or the other. In the State Senate we have gone from having about half the 40-member body in hyper-competitive partisan seats to about 10% being in seats that could swing from one party to the other.
What has resulted is a more polarized legislature, candidates less seasoned in talking to broader audiences and ultimately the number of elections decided in partisan primaries has a corrosive impact on democracy itself. Fairer, more-competitive districts will drive up voter turnout, increases citizen participation in elections, and ultimately fosters a more democratic process.
In the mid 1990s when the major swing in the legislature’s partisan composition took place thanks to term-limits and the 1992 reapportionment which brought a remarkable number of new minority-access districts to both the Florida House and Senate. Since the 2000 election, most exurban and rural seats have been controlled by Republicans in increasingly noncompetitive general elections. Most urban seats and the vast majority of suburban southeast Florida seats have been uncompetitive. Single-member districts were always going to create fewer competitive races, but the manipulation of the drawing of single-member districts complicated matters.
Against this backdrop many Democrats began thinking of themselves first and foremost. The collapsing Democratic Party structure and the inability of the party to build a bench or field operation empowered individual legislators. By emphasizing incumbent protection Republicans were about to get in 2002 double-digit numbers of House Democrats and about half the Senate Democrats to vote for the ultimate partisan gerrymander because it protected them.
More ideological government resulted. Democrats drifting further and further to the left leaving the few members left from moderate areas without any sort of cover. The Republicans pushed further and further to the right, though the GOP did by the mid 2000s boast a far greater percentage of moderates in their caucuses than the Democrats did. Today, the Republicans still have more moderates than the Democrats though they have been squeezed down to minimal numbers in both parties caucuses. The irony is where former members of the legislature run for municipal or county office after being ideologically driven members, they tend to moderate. Representing a broader and more diverse constituency requires pragmatism and practical governance.
It is worth asking how many representatives and senators have never faced serious partisan opposition? How does this impact the way they approach issues that impact Florida’s citizens. How does it influence the relationship they have with all the constituents they represent?
Democracy depends on choices. Competition fuels the marketplace of ideas and thoughts. Right now thanks to the nature of redistricting where the Republicans have politicized the process and self-interested Democrats have enabled them at various time, Florida’s citizens are losing.
Ultimately a stronger Florida and a stronger United States of America comes from fairer districts and politicians that have to be responsive to the needs of the constituencies that they are elected to represent.