‘We have to behave as what we are: citizens engaged in a struggle for democracy’
by Donna Waller, Retired SFC Political Science professor & community activist
On Oct. 25, I sat for 3.5 hours at the Alachua County Legislative Delegation’s annual public meeting. Watching and listening to everyone gave me a lot to think about, but the longer I stayed, the more I focused on the issue of gerrymandering.
The word dates back to the dawn of the republic when a Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry, created a district in the form of a salamander in order to give his party an advantage in the legislature. Drawing districts in an odd shape in order to help or harm a candidate or group is a time-honored American tradition, but so is the belief that it is a negative one that makes a mockery of our historical drive toward political equality.
In the last 30 years, gerrymandering has been a practice of many state legislatures, and in Florida, its impact has been enormous and has engendered a continuous political battle. Alachua County provides one of the state’s prime examples.
Our county is one of the most gerrymandered in the state. We are represented by three different members in the Florida House and two in the Florida Senate. Next year, our delegation will be chaired and co-chaired by two people who do not live here, Rep. Chuck Brannen of Macclenny and Senator Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island. Only one member of the current delegation resides within the city of Gainesville, the region’s population center.
Both the county and city have been dismembered, with 34th Street as the dividing line between House District 21 (Yvonne Hinson) to the east and House District 22 (Chuck Clemons) to the west. District 10 (Chuck Brannen) covers the northern tier of the county. The county is also divided into two state Senate districts. These districts were created in the wake of the 2010 US census. The districts created by Gov. Desantis and approved by the Florida Legislature in 2021 are even more clearly designed to weaken the political power of Alachua County and the city of Gainesville. Sen. Keith Perry, who is term limited, has stated openly that he believes that after the new district maps are implemented that there will never be another state Senator from Alachua County.
The purpose of all this is clear. It is to keep the county and the city, both of which have Democratic majorities, from acting as a political unit and retaining any power at all. It has worked, too. Out of the five legislators who theoretically represent the county, only one is a Democrat. This is not just our problem. It is the method by which the Republican Party has gained control of 37 state legislatures. So, why isn’t it illegal and why are the people who are denied adequate representation not fighting back? The answer is, it is, and they are.
If you ask people how they know whether a governmental system is democratic, they will usually answer something like “Free and fair elections.” That usually means two things: everyone has the right to vote and all votes carry equal weight. Over the last several decades, both of these fundamentals have been under attack.
The issue of attempts at voter suppression deserves more time than I can give it here and an article all its own. In the American legal system, the rules for votes carrying equal weight are two basic ones: fair apportionment and no gerrymandering.
The US Supreme Court declared gerrymandering designed to deny African Americans political power to be unconstitutional in 1948. It has also declared that legislative districts should be drawn with geographical rationality, meaning they should follow geographical or political borders like county lines.
Clearly, what has gone on here and in other parts of the country is in defiance of this basic rule. In Florida, that defiance has become even more egregious since the passage of the Fair Districts Amendment in 2010, in which the citizens of the state affirmed their desire for fair representation. This was ignored in the reapportionment in 2011 and again in 2021, with the results I described above.
The Florida Republican Party has simply marched forward to entrench itself in power with no regard for legality or equity, much less political equality. It is clear that it is prepared to deny many citizens any real representation for partisan purposes.
So, what can we do about this? First, we must understand that there are non-profits which struggle continuously and often effectively against this behavior. The League of Women Voters and Common Cause are the two of the most prominent.
They have taken gerrymandered legislative maps to court in many states and forced the redrawing of maps in a number of places, especially where the gerrymandering of Congressional seats is at issue. Such a case is being argued before the Florida Supreme Court right now. We should join and support groups that are carrying on these legal battles on behalf of the citizens.
Second, those of us who live in gerrymandered districts must continue to show up and confront our “representatives” who do not represent us and remind them constantly that we are their constituents. We should write to them, talk to them, and lobby them at every possible opportunity. We should remind them constantly that we understand the game, and we should show up and do that everywhere the legislative delegation appears publicly, as several hundred people did on Oct. 25.
Of course, we have to vote. We have to behave as what we are: citizens engaged in a struggle for democracy. It requires attentiveness, time, energy and patience; however, the stakes have never been higher. Fighting for democracy is a noble cause, and it is a fight Floridians can’t afford to lose.