"Let the lines fall fair."
This is the message from Florida state Representative Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach). During an interview with IVN, Rep. Jenne discussed his proposal to hand the responsibility for drawing the state's congressional and legislative boundaries over to an independent redistricting commission.
Our conversation came on the heels of a fruitless special session in the Florida legislature. State lawmakers convened in August to redraw the state's congressional map after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that it violated the state constitution, but when the deadline hit at noon on Friday, August 21, the chambers had not agreed on a common map.
In 2010, Florida voters approved two amendments to tackle gerrymandering in the state. The Fair Districts Amendments – one pertaining to state maps and the other to the congressional map – make it unconstitutional for the legislature to draw boundaries that “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”
In 2014, a county judge determined that two congressional districts needed to be redrawn. Then, in July 2015, the Florida Supreme Court handed down an even harsher ruling, citing evidence that lawmakers had secretly outsourced map-drawing to partisan operatives. It found that eight districts violated the state constitution and ordered the legislature to submit a new, constitutionally compliant map – hence this latest special session.
For Jenne, this inability to compromise is a sign that an independent redistricting commission needs to be considered.
“It’s clearly an idea that’s time is coming," he said, citing the adoption of such commissions in Arizona and California.
“People are...just fed up with their government," he added. "Why can’t we give them something that makes sense?”
For the second time, Jenne has introduced a bill to create a nine-member independent redistricting commission that would draw the boundaries for the state's legislative and congressional districts. Like the independent commissions in Arizona and California, most of its members would be Republicans and Democrats, and according to his proposal, none of the members could be elected officials.
Also like the commissions in these states, space would be reserved for those not affiliated with the major parties. Jenne recognizes the importance of independent voters in today's political environment.“It’s a large constituency that needs to be heard," he said. "In this two-party system, very often voices get drowned out."
In Jenne's Broward County, the second-most populous county in the state, independents outnumber Republicans. Those registered as "no party affiliation" (NPA) are on the rise all across Florida.
In Jenne's proposal, three of the spots on the commission would be reserved for those not affiliated with the two major parties.
"It’s very empowering for NPAs. It finally gives them a real seat at the table at something of the utmost importance in a democracy - how are we going to draw these districts?" - Florida State Rep. Evan Jenne
In addition to mandating diversity on the commission, Jenne has other ideas for how to protect its integrity and insulate it from the kind of clandestine partisan influence that corrupted the 2012 maps.
Jenne plans to plant the commission in Orlando – away from the capitol in Tallahassee and centrally located to make it accessible to the public. He wants citizens to provide input to the commission in public hearings to make the proceedings as open and transparent as possible.
This requirement regarding public hearings removes the ambiguity surrounding Arizona's independent redistricting commission, which sued the state in an effort to permit it to hold closed meetings.
When asked about whether he thinks the measure would get the support it needs to amend the state constitution, Jenne said that voters' frustration with the legislature's dysfunction and partisanship could be decisive.
"Voter distrust is very real on both sides of the aisle…and rightfully so in a lot of instances," he remarked. "I think anything moving away from outright party control like that is attractive to all of the people I have spoken to."
Jenne also wants there to be harsh penalties in place for those who subvert the process, something he said has been sorely lacking given the impunity with which operatives "hijacked" the process in preparing the 2012 maps – to use the language of Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis.When asked about the benefits of an independent redistricting commission, Jenne believes it could produce a "much calmer and much more financially secure ."
If implemented, he also believes that the composition of the legislature would more accurately reflect the will of the state's voters, who voted twice for Barack Obama but whose legislature today is under Republican control in both chambers.
"You’ll see what Florida really is," he said, "a 50/50 state that has virtually identical representation both in Congress and in our legislature, because that’s who we truly are: we are a toss-up state.”
But when it comes to who gains from the reform, Jenne says that he tries not to let the potential political consequences affect his thinking. Ultimately, he wants to see "a much more realistic map based on the true demographics of the state of Florida" – one that creates "an even playing field."
Though Jenne tries to remove himself and his party from consideration, he recalled how he was personally affected by the new map drawn in 2012. Jenne was elected in 2006 to represent the state's 100th district, but in 2012, he suddenly found himself in a new district: the 99th.
“During redistricting, the line literally moved 150 yards…west of my house," he said.
Given that he would have to introduce himself to a new constituency and face off against fellow Democrats, he decided not to seek office in 2012.
“I had to sit out," he said.
After a two-year break, Jenne was elected again to the Florida House in 2014. In 2015, he proposed a bill to create an independent redistricting commission, but it died in committee in April. The idea, he said, received little attention from the press at the time.
Now, however, with the redistricting effort stalled in the legislature, Jenne's idea is starting to catch on.
Jenne is not aware of any polling information regarding the popularity of this reform, but he said he has received positive feedback all across the state.
“It’s anecdotal sampling," he added. "Randomly asking a bartender, randomly asking a waitress…randomly asking just people not at all involved in politics…they all think it’s great.”
However, Jenne said he has been told his new bill, HB 21, will not get a hearing.
“I know it’s a dead duck in the Florida House," he said. “I knew it would never be heard as a bill in either chamber.”
There is another path to adopt an independent redistricting commission: the ballot initiative process – the same process by which the Fair Districts Amendments were added to the state constitution in 2010.
Jenne recognizes that this will be a long and arduous process, involving the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures. When asked about a timeline, Jenne said he hopes to have it on the ballot during a presidential election year, when voter turnout is highest.
While not ruling out having it placed on the 2016 ballot, Jenne hopes to see the measure placed on the 2020 ballot – in time for the next redistricting process that will be completed in 2022.
Though 2020 is a long way away, Jenne is eager to share and discuss his idea – and even to receive input from the public.
“If any of your readers or anyone has a good idea" for how to strengthen the independent redistricting commission," he said, "tell them to give me a call."
In the meantime, he says he is "just happy being able to be a spokesperson for a concept...a nonpartisan, independent concept," adding, "there is a better way to do this."
Photo Credit: EvanJenne.com